When bullying goes high-tech

Story highlights

  • As many as 25% of teenagers have experienced cyberbullying
  • Among young people, it's rare that an online bully will be a total stranger
  • Researchers are working on apps and algorithms to detect and report bullying online
Brandon Turley didn't have friends in sixth grade. He would often eat alone at lunch, having recently switched to his school without knowing anyone.
While browsing MySpace one day, he saw that someone from school had posted a bulletin -- a message visible to multiple people -- declaring that Turley was a "fag." Students he had never even spoken with wrote on it, too, saying they agreed.
Feeling confused and upset, Turley wrote in the comments, too, asking why his classmates would say that. The response was even worse: He was told on MySpace that a group of 12 kids wanted to beat him up, that he should stop going to school and die. On his walk from his locker to the school office to report what was happening, students yelled things like "fag" and "fatty."
"It was just crazy, and such a shock to my self-esteem that people didn't like me without even knowing me," said Turley, now 18 and a senior in high school in Oregon. "I didn't understand how that could be."
A pervasive problem
As many as 25% of teenagers have experienced cyberbullying at some point, said Justin W. Patchin, who studies the phenomenon at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He and colleagues have conducted formal surveys of 15,000 middle and high school students throughout the United States, and found that about 10% of teens have been victims of cyberbullying in the last 30 days.
Online bullying has a lot in common with bullying in school: Both behaviors include harassment, humiliation, teasing and aggression, Patchin said. Cyberbullying presents unique challenges in the sense that the perpetrator can attempt to be anonymous, and attacks can happen at any time of day or night.
There's still more bullying that happens at school than online, however, Patchin said. And among young people, it's rare that an online bully will be a total stranger.
Brandon Turley, 18, who experienced cyberbullying in middle school, designed the WeStopHate.org website.
"In our research, about 85% of the time, the target knows who the bully is, and it's usually somebody from their social circle," Patchin said.
Patchin's research has also found that, while cyberbullying is in some sense easier to perpetrate, the kids who bully online also tend to bully at school.
"Technology isn't necessarily creating a whole new class of bullies," he said.
Long-lasting consequences
The conversations that need to be happening around cyberbullying extend beyond schools, said Thomas J. Holt, associate professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University.
"How do we extend or find a way to develop policies that have a true impact on the way that kids are communicating with one another, given that you could be bullied at home, from 4 p.m. until the next morning, what kind of impact is that going to have on the child in terms of their development and mental health?" he said.
Holt recently published a study in the International Criminal Justice Review using data collected in Singapore by his colleague Esther Ng. The researchers found that 27% of students who experienced bullying online, and 28% who were victims of bullying by phone text messaging, thought about skipping school or skipped it. That's compared to 22% who experienced physical bullying.
Those who said they were cyberbullied were also most likely to say they had considered suicide -- 28%, compared to 22% who were physically bullied and 26% who received bullying text messages.
Although there may be cultural differences between students in Singapore and the United States, the data on the subject of bullying seems to be similar between the two