What does 13-year-old Taylor Hern ♥? Lots of things: the actor Ewan McGregor, the color pink, the band My Chemical Romance, her boyfriend Alex. You would know all that if you visited her Xanga, a blog--home-page hybrid that is the modern teen's public and interactive equivalent of a diary. You could even leave a comment on her Xanga or send her an "eProp" if, say, you ♥ Ewan McGregor too.
On April 18, Taylor, who is about to enter eighth grade at Lost Mountain Middle School in Kennesaw, Ga., got an instant message (IM) from her friend Sydney Meyer that said, "OMG [Oh, my God] OMG OMG go to your xanga." Someone using the screen name lmmsgirlsgot2hell had left Taylor a comment that read, "Go to my Xanga, bitch." Taylor did--and found a List of Hos. Her name was on it. The list was hurtful, but Taylor says she wasn't as bothered as other girls. "A bunch of the cheerleading chicks spazzed," she says. "Me and all my friends thought it was stupid. Who would actually make time in their schedule to do something like that?"
Turns out, many of her peers would. Technology has transformed the lives of teens, including the ways they pick on one another. If parents and teachers think it's hard to control mean girls and bullying boys in school, they haven't reckoned with cyberspace. Cyberbullying can mean anything from posting pejorative items like the List of Hos to spreading rumors by e-mail to harassing by instant message. It was experienced in the preceding two months by 18% of 3,700 middle schoolers surveyed by researchers at Clemson University. Their study is scheduled to be presented at this month's American Psychological Association meeting. The phenomenon peaks at about age 13; 21% of eighth-graders surveyed reported being cyberbullied recently. And incidents of online bullying are like roaches: for every one that's reported, many more go unrecorded. "Our statistics are conservative," says Clemson psychologist Robin Kowalski. "Part of the problem is kids not recognizing that what's happening is a form of bullying."
Online bullying follows a gender pattern that's the opposite of what happens off-line, the Clemson study found. On playgrounds and in school hallways, boys are the primary perpetrators and victims; online, girls rule. Nearly a third of the eighth-grade girls surveyed reported being bullied online in the previous two months, compared with 10% of boys; 17% of the girls said they had bullied online, but only 10% of the boys said they had. Such stats get an eye roll from teens. "Girls make up stuff and sooooooo much drama," Taylor said (by IM, of course). "Drama queens."
On the Internet, you can wear any mask you like--and that can be harrowing for the victim of a cyberbully. A few weeks after the List of Hos was posted, Taylor's classmate Courtney Katasak got an IM from someone using the screen name ToastIsYummy. Courtney thought it might be a friend with a new screen name, so she asked, WHO IS THIS? ToastIsYummy responded with teasing lines and a link to a porn site. "Then they kept sending me these inappropriate messages," she says. "I blocked the screen name so they couldn't talk to me, but I didn't know who this person was or what they were trying to do. It freaked me out."