Cyber bullying is in the national spotlight again, and the news is not encouraging: On the heels of a widely publicized case in Missouri that led to the suicide of a 13-year-old girl, new research suggests online harassment is on the rise among students.

As many as one in three U.S. children have been ridiculed or threatened through computer messages, according to one estimate of the emerging problem of cyber bullying.

Another new study found the problem is less common, with one in 10 kids reporting online harassment. But health experts say even the lower estimate signals a growing and worrisome public health issue.

“I wouldn’t consider something that 10 percent of kids report as low,” said Janis Wolak, a University of New Hampshire researcher who co-authored the second study.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is trying to draw attention to how adolescents are affected by harassment perpetrated through eMail, instant messaging, text messaging, blog postings, and other electronic communications.

Last year, CDC officials convened a panel of experts to focus on the topic. They also funded a special issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health to publish more research on the subject. The journal released its articles Nov. 27.

It’s difficult to say how severe a public health issue online harassment is, because a posting or eMail message that might upset some children could be shrugged off by others, CDC officials said. And the results of various surveys can differ, depending on how the questions are asked.

But the issue has attracted the attention of lawmakers in Oregon, Washington, New Jersey, and other states that have introduced bills or instituted programs designed to reduce cyber bullying.

Last month, officials in the Missouri town of Dardenne Prairie made internet harassment a misdemeanor, in the wake of public outrage over the suicide of a 13-year-old resident there last year.

The parents of Megan Meier claim their daughter, who had been treated for depression, committed suicide after a teenage boy who flirted with her on MySpace abruptly ended their friendship, telling her he heard she was mean. The story gained national prominence when it was revealed the boy never existed—it was a prank allegedly started by a mother in the girl’s neighborhood.

No criminal charges will be filed against the mother or other persons who sent cruel internet messages to Megan before she committed suicide, St. Charles County prosecutor Jack Banas said Dec. 3. Banas said no applicable statue would allow him to file charges in the case, and the actions in question occurred before the town’s new law.

The schoolyard continues to be a source of in-person bullying, too: Studies indicate that roughly 17 percent of early adolescents say they are victims of recurring verbal aggression or physical harassment.

Some kids suffer both in-person and electronic harassment, but it’s more often one or the other. A study by California-based researcher Michele Ybarra found 64 percent of youths who were harassed online were not also bullied in person.

The new cyber-bullying studies publicized by the CDC made conflicting estimates of the size of the problem. The largest estimate came from Ybarra, president of Internet Solutions for Kids, a nonprofit research organization.

One Ybarra study was based on an online survey of 1,588 children ages 10 to 15. It found 34 percent said they were the victim of internet harassment at least once in the previous year, and 8 percent said they were targeted monthly or more often.

Also, 15 percent said they’ve received at least one unwanted sexual communication in the past year. That included solicitations for sex, conversations about sex, or questions about bra size or other personal sexual information.

All bothersome communications were included, no matter the age of the sender.

Wolak’s study was a telephone survey of 1,500 internet users, ages 10 to 17. The 9 percent who said they were harassed online in the previous year was an increase from the 6 percent in a similar study from 2000.

At least part of the difference might lie in how the surveys were done: The New Hampshire study defined online harassment as anyone who said they felt embarrassed, worried, or threatened by an online posting or internet message. Ybarra’s survey asked respondents not only whether someone made aggressive or threatening comments, but also whether someone had made rude or mean comments or spread rumors about them.

In the Wolak study, more than half of the communications came from people whom the children had never met. Many of these messages were handled easily by deleting the comment or blocking additional postings from the sender.

“A lot of the kids were not particularly upset,” Wolak said.

Because much of the online aggression is not a recurring harassment, she and others said “cyber bullying” probably isn’t the best description.

“Most of these are pretty brief encounters,” Wolak said.

Still, for educators on the front lines, cyber bullying is a threat that needs to be taken seriously.

Writing in the September 2007 issue of eSchool News, award-winning columnist Nora Carr cited this finding by National Association of School Psychologists: “As with other forms of bullying, victims of chronic abuse are more likely to develop depression or low self-esteem, bring weapons to school, or contemplate suicide.”

“The fear and anxiety caused by [cyber] bullying can interfere with learning, damage the school climate, and leave victims psychically scarred,” wrote Carr, who is the associate superintendent for communication at North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Carr recommends several steps that parents and educators can take to combat cyber bullying—including updating acceptable-use policies to address online bullying, creating an inclusive climate that fosters acceptance and tolerance, and reporting instances of online harassment to the proper authorities.

“Bullying might be common, but it’s not normal. Teachers, school leaders, parents, and students need to recognize bullying as the antisocial behavior it is and do more to stop it before more children are irreparably harmed,” Carr concluded.

Links:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

CDC’s page on electronic harassment

“Cyber bullying needs to be taken seriously … here’s how” (eSN, September 2007)

“States seek laws to curb eBullying” (eSN, April 2007)