It used to be that when someone bullied another, it was the strong picking on the weak. But in the Internet age, that's not the case anymore.
The rising phenomenon of cyberbullying has prompted a University of Utah conference for K-12 educators, "Beyond Bullying: Transforming Schools the Caring Way," hosted by the nonprofit Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Center for Community of Caring.
The conference at the University Guest House and Conference Center runs July 13 to 15. While sessions aren't open to the public, the gathering underscores how pressing the topic has become in public schools locally and nationally.
"One of the disadvantages of technology is it has made contact less personable," said Paula Smith, the center's executive director. "One of the things that happens is people feel like they're anonymous when they're online and think they can act out without repercussions. But teens are learning there are plenty of repercussions online."
As in the infamous case of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi.
The Rutgers freshman was secretly video-recorded last September, allegedly by his roommate, having sex with another man in their dorm room on the Piscataway, N.J., university campus. A live feed of the video was then posted on the Internet. Three days later, Clementi jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge.
It's not just a problem somewhere else. In Utah's rural Sanpete County, a teen boy killed himself about a year ago when he was the victim of cyberbullying, according to Utah Sen. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe. That prompted the lawmaker to introduce a bill during January's legislative session to include cyberbullying in Utah's anti-bullying and hazing statute.
The bill, which was signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert, mandates that all local school districts have an anti-bullying policy dealing with cyberbullying as well as more conventional forms of harassment.
"It's getting worse with this cyber-bullying," Okerlund said. "You can do so much damage to somebody's self-worth by doing these things on the Internet."
Data on cyber-bullying remains limited. But in a 2009 survey of 40,000 students from 38 Utah school districts, more than 20 percent said they had been "threatened or harassed over the Internet, by email or by someone using a cellphone" at least once. The survey was sponsored by the Utah Department of Human Services.
In a 2007 national survey, 43 percent of kids surveyed reported they had received some form of cyberbullying the previous year, according to a report by the National Crime Prevention Council.
"People are more likely to write down something they wouldn't say verbally," said Susan Swearer, a psychology professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She's co-director of the Bullying Research Network, which studies the emotional and psychological impact of bullying.
"They don't see the effects their words have," added Swearer, who will be delivering the keynote talk at the conference. "If you say something mean to somebody and you make them cry, you sense their hurt. But there is an element of truth that people are more likely to write something negative than say it where they don't see how it affects them."
Karen Geller, principal at Upper Merion Middle School, King of Prussia, Pa., has instituted an anti-cyberbullying program that involves school board members, teachers, school staff and parents. It also involves student clubs that talk about cyberbullying with other kids. Geller will be presenting a panel on how she has used this strategy to help mitigate problems in her school.
"It really takes a long time to establish a solid program and train everyone in your building and address every single incident. And they have to deal with every single incident," she said. "Students think they can get away with anything and that they can't get caught. But they can get caught."