Cyberbullying may not be as widespread as feared, as most teenagers are more worried about old-fashioned pushing and shoving than online tormenters, according to a new study.
Still, about one-third of all teenagers say they've been bullied through the Internet, complaining about a range of attacks that range from annoying to dangerous, according to research released Wednesday by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
While focus groups with teenagers conducted for the study unearthed plenty of horror stories, the research suggests that computer-based taunting among children may not be as widespread as some feared. Only 6 percent of participants said someone had posted an embarrassing picture of them online without permission, for example. And 13 percent said someone has spread rumors about them online.
On the other hand, 67 percent of kids said they were more likely to face real-world bullying than cyberbullying.
Researcher Amanda Lenhart said the results were unexpectedly tame, given the media attention focused on the problem of cyberbullying. Computer conflicts apparently don't faze kids that much, she said.
"The computer is just part all the experiences kids have now," Lenhart said. "It's part of what it means to be a kid. ... Still, it's important to note that one-third of kids have been targeted."
Cyberbullying is psychological rather than physical, Lenhart said – but it can go far beyond virtual name-calling. Embarrassing photos secretly taken in schools, at parties, or on the beach can end up on the Internet, for example. Instant messages intended for a private audience can be posted on MySpace pages. And in a 21st Century version of traditional bullying, threats of physical violence are easy to make anonymously online.
During focus group discussions conducted after the survey, a 15-year-old boy told researchers he had threatened to kill someone online, but added it was only a joke.
"I played a prank on someone but it wasn't serious," he said, according to the report. "I told them I was going to come take them from their house and kill them and throw them in the woods. It's the best prank because it's like 'oh my God, I'm calling the police!' and I was like 'I'm just kidding, I was just messing with you.' She got so scared though."
Some bullying has unexpected consequences. One 17-year-old boy who talked with researchers said a photograph of him taken at a New Year's party was posted online without his permission and seen by officials at his high school. He was suspended.
The dangers of forwarded messages
The most prevalent form of cyberbullying involved publishing someone's private e-mails or text messages in a public space -- about 1 in 8 teens said that had happened to them. Many said the content of those digital conversations was sometimes altered to make the author appear to say embarrassing things.
"I was in a fight with a girl and she printed out our conversation, changed some things that I said, and brought it into school, so I looked like a terrible person," a middle-school girl said.
Alteration of digital content isn't always that tame. Another middle school student told researchers about a gay student's home page being taken over by young bigots.
"I have this one friend and he's gay and his account got hacked and someone put all these really homophobic stuff on there and posted like a mass bulletin of like some guy with his head smashed open like run over by a car," she said. "It was really gruesome and disgusting."
Lenhart said her study picked up a slim gender gap in online bullying: more girls say they are victims than boys. Girls 15-17 were about 10 percent more likely than boys the same age to be targeted. Girls 12-17 were almost twice as likely to report a particular form of cyberbullying -- having rumors about them spread online -- than boys.
"Bullies are very creative," Lenhart warned. "What we have here is junior high writ large."
RED TAPE WRESTLING TIPS
Like real-world bullying, there's really no way to stop cyberbullying. But there are a few things kids can do to limit their exposure.
• No privacy. Everyone knows this, but everyone forgets this. Everything you type online, even in private e-mails or IMs, can end up in public for all the world to see. For this reason, use the phone or talk in person for really private conversations. And remember, even innocent-sounding jokes can sound terrible when taken out of context.
• Strong passwords. Kids try to hack into each other's e-mail and MySpace pages all the time. Never share your password, even with friends (today's friend could be tomorrow's enemy). And use strong passwords, mixing letters, numbers, and punctuation characters so that it's hard for others to guess.
• Parental involvement. Parents need to be aware of cyberbullying techniques -- they are changing all the time, said Lenhart -- and keep an open dialog with their teens about the kinds of things they might be facing at school. For example, text-message bombing, which overloads a kids' phone with hundreds of messages, is the latest trick, Lenhart said.
• More parental involvement. Family therapist Susan Shankle, author of What in the World Are Your Kids Doing Online? endorses an aggressive form of parenting to put the brakes on cyberbullying: "Nothing takes the place of parental involvement," she said. "Parents need to periodically check computer history and cell phones for messages that a child may feel scared to report."