When Joanne had a row with a longtime friend last year, she had no idea it would spill into cyberspace.
But what started as a spat at a teenage sleepover swiftly escalated into a three-month harangue of threatening e-mails and defacement of her Web log. "It was a nonstop nightmare," says Joanne, 14, a freshman at a private high school in Southern California. "I dreaded going on my computer."
The bullying eventually stopped after her parents and school officials intervened. But Joanne remains shaken by the experience.
The incident reflects the latest way technology is altering the social lives of children at an age when they are especially vulnerable to insults. The emergence of cyberbullying has intensified adolescent angst. It allows bullies to unleash putdowns, nasty rumors and humiliating pictures in e-mail and blogs that can strike victims at home and at any time. The damage can be devastating, psychologists say, even as it is not always obvious to parents and teachers.
Cyberbullies, mostly ages 9 to 14, are using the anonymity of the Web to mete out pain without witnessing the consequences. The problem - aggravated by widespread use of wireless devices such as cell phones and BlackBerrys - is especially prevalent in affluent suburbs, where high-speed Internet use is high and kids are technically adept, says Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety.org (www.wiredsafety.org), an online safety group.
"Some kids can't wait to get home so they can continue taunting," says Aftab, who is also an Internet lawyer. "Maybe we need to protect kids from one another online as much as we shield them from dangerous adults."
Many victims don't tell their parents out of fear they will be barred from using the Internet, Aftab and others say.
"You feel as if no one can help you," says Alyssa, 14, who waited two weeks before telling her mother she was being bullied by a boy who called her a "loser" and "stupid" in instant messages. "It's a lonely, scary feeling."
The problem appears to be growing, as more kids chat on the Internet. Half of 3,000 U.S. children surveyed the past six months said they or someone they know have been victims or guilty of cyberbullying, says WiredSafety.org.
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In related news, a study shows parents limit teens' web use. That story here .