Nearly every parent has tried to console their child at one time or another with the axiom "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me."
Dodging insults has become increasingly difficult with cyberbullying, however, as tormentors can hide behind the technology of the Internet and cell phones to hurl insults and worse at their peers.
Sometimes, the conflict transcends digital realms and becomes physical; at its worst, it has ended in suicide.
One student's story
Hollidaysburg Junior High School student Ann - whose name has been changed by the Mirror to protect her privacy - began getting taunting texts and cruel, profane Facebook messages and status updates last year. Most came from a clique of girls who also attend Hollidaysburg; one came from a girl's father, who called her "white trash" in an inbox message and accused her of drug use.
Ann, 14, said it escalated to threatening, private Facebook inbox messages from a female student. Ann provided the Mirror with a printout of one of them from October: "Dont be shoked if u get ur ugly face punch in tomorrow nd im NOT playen," and "WAIT TILL AFTER SCHOOL ULL GET A TASTE OF WAT I GOT ND U BETTER BET...IM COMEN UP TOO YOU," according to a copy printed out from her inbox.
Part 3 of a 4-part series on new technology's effects on youths.
Sunday: How new methods of communication may affect face-to-face interactions.
Monday: Are some children addicted to technological pastimes?
Today: How kids use new technologies to bully in new, frightening ways.
Wednesday: Positive effects of today's technology
Ann's mother told the district about the threat, and Junior High Principal Edward Barton said appropriate action was taken.
The administration confronted the girl who made the threats and told her if she followed through, the district would consider it a premeditated action.
Teachers were informed, and Barton and other staff members kept watch on the girls at dismissal for the next few days until they made it onto their buses, he said.
Later, administrators met with each girl individually and were told they were no longer having issues.
But in November, when Ann checked her cell phone one Sunday evening, she was accosted by texts from a peer who threatened to "put her in the hospital" after school the next day, she said. According to Ann, she hadn't done anything to provoke the behavior and didn't know why she was being bullied.
She tried to avoid a confrontation the next day by leaving school through a different exit than usual, but it didn't work, she said.
There was a fight, and both girls received a three-day, out-of-school suspension in accordance with the school district's code of conduct.
Barton said Ann didn't inform district administration about that threat.
"If we don't know about a threat, there's no way we can do anything about it," district spokeswoman Linda Russo said.
Although she wouldn't always tell her parents what was going on, there were occasions when Ann would break down and cry and tell her parents she didn't want to set foot back in the school.
In recent weeks, things have gotten a little better, her father said.
Ann said she tries to stay away from the people who torment her. She deleted them from her list of friends on Facebook and has made her profile more private.
"I try to remove them from my life, and I have no desire to talk to them," she said. "Why would I?"
In the past, it was easier to avoid people and to let a disagreement "fizzle out," Ann's mother said. Now, technology gives teenagers "24-hour access to drama."
"When I was growing up, all of this happened face-to-face," her mother said. "It's so different now."
Where schools and law enforcement factor in
Hollidaysburg Area and Altoona Area school districts have included cyberbullying in the bullying section of their student handbooks for the past few years. Both districts handle potential situations similarly, according to information provided by Hollidaysburg Senior High School Principal Linda McCall and Altoona Area Junior High School Principal Lori Mangan.
Their policies are so similar, in fact, that their respective student handbooks define bullying in the exact same terms: intentional electronic, written, verbal or physical acts that occur in a school setting and/or outside a school setting that produce a substantial interference with a student's education, creates a threatening environment or is a substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school.
Both districts block access to Facebook and other social networking websites on school computers and prohibit cell phone use during the school day. Students also have to sign an agreement that they will abide by the district's acceptable use of Internet policies.
Both districts encourage students to report instances of cyber-bullying so they can be investigated and dealt with immediately.
"Once we're satisfied with the investigation, if we feel it falls under our bullying policy, we discipline the student or students per the student code of conduct," Mangan said.
If out-of-school cyber bullying becomes a school issue, police can be involved, McCall said.
In Ann's situation, her parents met with police, her mother said.
Trooper Jeff Petucci, spokesman for state police at Hollidaysburg, said he was unfamiliar with the particulars of what happened between police and Ann's family, but he said charges could be brought under certain circumstances in regard to cyber-bullying.
When someone is charged with harassment by communication, it is a third-degree misdemeanor, not just a summary offense, Petucci said.
"It is a crime, and one we take very seriously," he said.
Behind the screen
Some children use texts and online messaging to communicate with more intense language and a "nastier undertone" than they might if they were face-to-face or on the phone, according to Altoona Area High School guidance counselor Drew Yingling.
There are also times when rumors spread widely via Facebook, which can be "very hurtful," he said.
Almost a third of teens - 29 percent - have been targeted by hurtful electronic communications, while 52 percent worry about Internet safety and know someone their age who has been a target, according to a 2010 survey released by TRU, a Chicago-based youth market research firm.
"I think students are braver using technology. I think the things they convey using electronic means of communication are definitely things they would not say in other circumstances," Yingling said.
It's very easy for some kids to type things where they don't have to see or hear the emotional damage or the way it's affecting the person on the other end, according to Julie Yahner, a guidance counselor at Altoona Area Junior High School.
"I wish kids would stop and think before they type and ask themselves if it's something they would say if they were eye-to-eye with the other person," Russo said. "If the answer is 'no,' then don't type it."
Cameron Conaway, a former mixed martial arts fighter turned poet and writer who gave an anti-bullying speech to AAJH seventh-graders in November, agrees.
"Technology has changed bullying kind of like how it has changed war," Conaway said. "You can push a button and blow up 30,000 people, but you don't have to see the struggle or the blood. In both instances, it has kind of taken the direct emotion out of it, and I guess that's kind of frightening."
Kids just don't think it's as bad to be "busting on people" when they can't see the reaction, according to Conaway.
The Internet sanitizes bullies from real-world confrontation, effectively encouraging their worst behavior, Peter Picard, TRU vice-president of Custom Research, said.
"Weak people, provided the illusion of power, are the most dangerous tyrants," Picard said.
Kids must take responsibility
John Chapin, a communications professor at Penn State Beaver, works with Leon Strimel, a violence prevention education specialist at Crisis Center North, a counseling and outreach center in Pittsburgh, to promote violence prevention education in schools around the state.
Chapin said some young people who are cyber-bullied will develop a thick skin and view the insults less personally. They'll accept them as part of the nature of text messaging and social networking. Others, however, are unable to disregard the abuse and will personalize it, said Chapin. This can damage self-esteem and have a long-standing impact on the victim's personality.
"Children are at an important point in their psychological development during their adolescent and teenage years, and cyber-bullying could really have a big effect on how they feel about themselves and how they relate to other people in the future," Chapin said.
Concerned parents can help by monitoring their child's computer and text messaging use.
Strimel acknowledges that while parents and schools are both instrumental in preventing bullying, young people share in the responsibility.
When children are bystanders and witness the bullying, they have to step up and do something to stop it, he said.
"There aren't enough parents or teachers or anybody else beside the peers who see all that happens with instances of cyber-bullying, and people have to say they don't put up with those kind of things," Strimel said.
Like any other form of bullying, the bullies want to "put on a show," Strimel said. When a kid texts something mean to somebody else, or publishes something offensive on Facebook, he or she usually wants people to see what they did.
"Those people, the bystanders, have to be the people who say 'this is not the right thing to do, and we're not going to put up with this,'" he said.
Mirror Staff Writer Scott Muska is at 946-7435.