When kids are bullies, or being bullied, adults naturally want to help. But with kids using technology to be cruel to each other the lines between home and school are blurred. So who should step in and what should they do?
"Forget the contracts of 'Oh, let's just all be kind to each other,' because kids blow those off all the time," author and educator Rosalind Wiseman says.
Wiseman knows what she's talking about; she literally wrote the book on 'mean girls.' Her book, 'Queen Bees and Wannabes,' first brought attention to the 'mean girls' phenomenon and inspired a movie of that same name. Now Wiseman says her queen bees and wannabes have found a new way to be nasty.
"Technology has profoundly changed the way that kids interact with each other," she says.
And on cell phones and Facebook those mean interactions often carry greater risks than kids realize.
"Technology just makes everything so much bigger so that kids can't make the mistakes that we made a generation ago without people knowing about those mistakes forever," Wiseman says.
Cyber technology is only becoming more popular. Two years ago 28 percent of kids between 12 and 17 had Facebook accounts. Last year that number nearly doubled, and nearly 80 percent of kids have their own cell phones. Researchers point out that kids are more savvy with these mediums than their parents are because this technology is so new.
While educators like Wiseman are working on ways to moderate cyber-bullying, Assistant Professor Annie Murray-Close is working with the University of Vermont's Psychology Department to find out why it happens in the first place.
"One of the things that we're really interested in is how these behaviors may reflect some of the changes in the social culture that happens in schools when kids hit late elementary school, middle school," Murray-Close says.
Murray-Close and the Psychology Department are conducting an 18-month study of 4th-through-7th graders at 30 different Vermont schools. Students, teachers and parents are surveyed about how the kids are acting and feeling. The study is looking for patterns that indicate why some kids go mean.
Research indicates those behaviors begin because popularity starts coming into play.
"The formation of cliques, you see that starting in late elementary school, and you see people really starting to focus on things like social status in the classroom," Murray-Close says.
Murray-Close says cyber-bullying is a high-tech outlet for a bullying behavior known as relational aggression, which usually manifests itself in less public ways.
"It's things like throwing a party and not inviting a friend that's in your friendship group because you're angry at them or telling your friends that you're mad at someone else in your group and that they shouldn't talk to them," she explains. And while both boys and girls engage in these behaviors, she says the impact isn't usually equal. "Girls report being more distressed when they're targets of these behaviors than boys do."
Murray-Close hopes this study will help both the victims of relational aggression and the aggressors themselves. The victim isn't the only one hurting when bullying happens. The aggressor is hurting as well.
"It's an indicator of risk, there's something that's not working for those kids," Murray-Close says of the bullies.
In the meantime Wiseman says it's everyone's responsibility to keep an eye on the cyber-world and the tech-savvy kids who live there.
"As long as parents and adults say 'No no, it happened at home so we can't do anything about it, we're not going to work with the school on this,' we're in a lot of mess and trouble," Wiseman says.
Technology bridges the gap between what happens in school and what happens at home, so experts say it's time for adults in both places to join their kids in cyber-world.
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