Like the technology now thriving in school hallways everywhere, the business of bullying is moving into the 21st century. The big, bad bully's boundaries are no longer confined to the schoolyard. They're expanding off campus and online.
"There's really, unfortunately, a lot of different ways that people can misuse technology to hurt others," Brian Marcus with the Anti-Defamation League says.
One way students can misuse technology is the internet. KARE 11 spoke with one woman whose family experienced this firsthand. She asked us not to identify her or use her real name, so we'll call her "Michelle."
She says someone learned her daughter's MySpace password, logged into her account, changed the password and basically hijacked her profile.
"They stated she was a lesbian, she was easy," Michelle says. "By the time she got to school, everybody was talking about it, it traveled so fast."
The demeaning comments spread and intensified. They were read by friends, teachers, even people at church.
"She became very depressed," her mother says. "Her grades went from straight A's to complete F's."
Eventually, the girl left school, perhaps just in time.
"We did get her into counseling and when she was evaluated, she was borderline suicidal at that point," Michelle says.
Watch Part II of Joe's series on bullying
This is just one example of a growing trend called cyber bullying. It's by no means confined to MySpace. It takes make forms, like e-mail, instant messages, fake webpages, Facebook, YouTube and more. Even cell phones are used to send inappropriate or threatening messages.
Justin Patchin, at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, is an expert on cyber bullying. He figures at least one-third, probably more, of all middle- and high-schoolers have experienced cyber bullying. And those numbers may continue to rise.
"The kids that we've spoken with all agree that it's happening, so if they haven't experienced it directly, they know somebody who has experienced it," Patchin says.
The Anti-Defamation League says the problem even extends to higher education.
"In one case, for example, very recently that we dealt with, there was a student at college who literally left school because he was so bullied by what was going on online," Marcus says.
This new high-tech harassment is different from traditional bullying, says Jodee Blanco, an author and bullying expert.
"The same kid 30 years ago who passed a nasty note about me in math class could today e-mail it to the entire school," says Blanco, who wrote "Stop Laughing at Me," a book based on her personal childhood bullying experiences.
With cyber bullying, the results are as a quick as a mouse click. Unlike traditional bullying, girls are just as likely as boys to be involved in cyber bullying. And it can happen 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"There is no respite from the tortures that are out there in cyberspace," Walter Roberts says. He's a counseling professor at Minnesota State University Mankato. "Even when a child goes to sleep, another individual can come online, post something else and it's there the next day when the victim wakes up."
Making matters worse, the victims often don't know who is bullying them.
Nichole Neu, a 14-year-old student, got three voicemails from an unknown number earlier this year.
"They were just threatening me," she says. "Saying they were gonna kill me and stuff."
She also got a couple inappropriate text messages.
"I told my mom right away and I was crying," she says.
"It was scary because I didn't know who it was," Jackie Neu, Nichole's mother says. "I didn't know where the person lived. I didn't know how old the person was."
The Neus did report the problem to their school counselor and police. While authorities could never prove with certainty who was bullying Nichole, they had an idea. The harassment stopped soon after Nichole reported it.
Most cyber bullying victims, however, don't tell an adult.
"We saw time and time again, they were afraid to tell their parents because they were afraid to lose their computer privileges," Patchin says.
"Michelle" says her daughter never told her. She found out from a friend.
Even after that, it took a while to get rid of the profile. MySpace requests that identity theft and cyber bullying victims send a picture of themselves holding a handwritten sign that includes their identification numbers.
Michelle's friend says she sent the picture to MySpace nearly every day, and it still took about three weeks to get the account deleted. In that time, the harassment continued to get worse.
"She had no ambition to want to live anymore," Michelle says. "She was just fed up."
Today, the girl is doing much better. Her mother hopes their story teaches others about cyber bullying.
"I didn't know about it until it happened to us, and then you have to learn a lot in a little bit of time," she says.
Kids need to realize they shouldn't give their passwords to friends or phone numbers to anyone they don't trust.
If kids are bullied, experts say:
They should tell an adult
They should not read or open messages from bullies
They should save or print the messages, so they have a record
Remember: online bullies can often be blocked
If it's a threatening message, you should contact authorities
Patchin says parents may want to set up their own MySpace accounts and ask their kids to help them do it.
"The fact that there are bad things on the internet doesn't mean we should keep them off the internet," he says. "It means that we should talk with them about what they're doing on the internet and how to be safe."
Patchin says parents need to understand that kids are going to grow up in cyberspace. Like any playground, it's filled with bullies, but doesn't have to be ruled by them.
(Copyright 2007 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)