The digital world has become a haven for cyberbullying—bullying that takes place with the help of smartphones and computers and via methods including email, social media and text messaging. What's more surprising is how widespread this behavior has become—and the gravitational effect it has on children who might otherwise not be part of the bullying process. While parents may think they understand how modern bullying works, their kids beg to differ.
A study from wiredsafety.org found that most parents believe they understand the ins and outs of digital bullying. However, when the group asked 13,000 kids—in grades six and under—if their parents did, in fact, get it, only 23 percent said they did.
"I think kids are bullying more in the digital world," said Parry Aftab, founder of wiredsafety.org and an expert in cyberbullying. "It has greater impact because you have more people tuning in to see. ... When we start using digital technology, you lose a lot of humanness of this. You lose a lot of the real emotion behind it. There's a lack of understanding of consequences."
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Digital bullying occurs in an ever-growing number of ways. It could be a barrage of harassing or insulting text messages, a rumor posted to Twitter, embarrassing pictures forwarded to social circles or posted online, or fake Facebook pages made in a child's name and loaded with embarrassing or untrue information.
A recent wiredsafety study of students in high schools and middle schools in Canada found 70 percent of teens saying they had been digitally bullied in the past six months; 92 percent felt it was getting worse.
"When a rumor would happen in a schoolyard before, it would spread and take a bit of time to do that, changing a bit along the way, or someone would stop it. That doesn't happen today," said Barbara Coloroso, who has spent the past 38 years consulting on bullying and is author of "The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander." "When virtual and real worlds are merged for our young people, we now have social assassination done online. ... [And] bullying can happen under the radar of adults."
Those attacks can have fatal consequences. In September 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick committed suicide after being bullied. A month later two girls—one 12 and one 14—were arrested on aggravated stalking charges after one proudly admitted on Facebook that she bullied Sedwick just before she jumped to her death. And Sedwick's case was hardly unique.
Suicide rates for teens and preteens have been increasing for several years. In fact, the 2010 rate of teen suicides (10.5 per 100,000) was the highest it has been in over 10 years. Yale's School of Medicine, in 2008, reviewed 37 studies examining bullying and suicide and found bullying victims were anywhere from two to nine times more likely to report suicidal thoughts.
"While there is no definitive evidence that bullying makes kids more likely to kill themselves, now that we see there's a likely association, we can act on it and try to prevent it," said Young-Shin Kim, M.D., assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine's Child Study Center and lead author of the review.
While kids believe parents are the key to helping students, they note that how a mother and father responds is critical. Over- or underreacting is bad. Instead, kids say they want someone to listen, to be kind and nonjudgmental, regardless of the circumstances. (That's especially important if a child had been sexting and later found that the picture they'd taken was sent to many people or posted online.)
While the increased focus on bullying might lead some to believe kids are becoming meaner—or becoming bullies earlier—experts say this isn't the case. The problem really lies in the fact that kids master the components of technology long before they understand the importance of protecting their personal privacy and sharing appropriately—not sharing passwords and creating hard-to-guess passwords. This in turn opens up the door for potential bullying.
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Meanwhile, someone who might not risk conflict in the real world may be emboldened by the emotional disconnect that the online world creates.
"It's an impulsive problem," says Aftab. "Real-life bullying takes effort. You risk someone punching you in the face. Online, it takes less effort. If you do this, who cares? You don't get hurt, and you're doing it just for sport."
While many technology companies have been slow to respond to bullying, changes are finally coming. Google has announced plans to modify the way comments work on YouTube, giving content creators the ability to moderate and block comments and to move relevant discussions to the top of the pile.
Facebook recently teamed with Yale's Center for Emotional Intelligence to launched a page filled with stronger social reporting tools and advice for kids, parents and educators on how to stop bullying. Twitter recently was the subject of an inquiry by British parliament as a result of female journalists and politicians being harassed via Twitter. As a result, Twitter instituted a new policy that allows users to report abuse immediately to get the tweet taken down.
There are, however, plenty of other ways to be bullied online—especially as kids move away from larger social sites and gravitate toward lesser-known outlets and apps. WiredSaftey found that Ask.fm (based in Latvia) was the network with the highest rate of digital bullying. Parents may not have heard of it, but it boasts more than 60 million users worldwide and adds 200,000 new users a day.
Other kids use SnapChat to communicate—and often sext—since the app deletes pictures and video after five to 10 seconds. But there are a growing number of ancillary SnapChat apps that allow users to capture and store those pictures without the sender realizing it, which opens the door for possible bullying or blackmailing later on.
"The bully already has a power, and the Internet has given them a far greater tool to further that power," Coloroso said. "The Internet has given them magnified power to torment someone. It does not, unfortunately, provide many tools [for victims] to effectively confront them."
—By Chris Morris, Special to CNBC.com