Researchers: E-Mail, Instant Messaging Are Favorite Tools of Cyber Harassers

E-mail and instant messaging — not social networking sites such as MySpace — are the top ways adults and kids are bullied online, according to Internet experts.

Researchers studying the disturbing trend of cyber stalking are highlighting their surprising findings as many struggle to come to terms with the death of 13-year-old Missouri teen Megan Meier, who took her own life after being taunted on MySpace.

On Monday, Missouri prosecutors said they would not file criminal charges in the case.

Click here to read the Megan Meier story.

Studies conducted by the cyber-stalking advocacy group Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHOA), show that 31 percent of reported cases of Internet harassment began through e-mail, and 17 percent through instant messaging (IM) in 2006, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

Other research has yielded similar findings. Dr. Christine Suniti Bhat, a professor in the department of counseling and higher education at Ohio University, found IM to be the most common way kids harassed each other over the Internet.

“In my study, instant messaging was the top culprit, and then in the middle range were e-mail, MySpace and other social networking sites,” Bhat said. “At the bottom of the list were blogs and voting booths.” Online “voting booths” are usually malicious polls teens set up to give labels like "ugliest" or "sluttiest" to kids they don't like and want to hurt or embarrass, she said.

In contrast, using social networking sites as the starting point for online bullying is more rare. In the 2006 WHOA surveys, only 5 percent of cyber harassment began on MySpace, and only a single case was logged in as having started on Facebook.

Chat rooms, Web sites, blogs, dating sites and even eBay were among other means of terrorizing people on the Internet, WHOA found.

The group's statistics are based not on the total number of cases but on the number for which there was complete demographic information about the victims, aged 18 and up, provided through questionnaires.

The organization handles a total of about 50 to 75 cyber-bullying reports a week.

Online harassment escalates in similar ways. In 2006, e-mail was used in 33 percent of cases, phone in 18 percent, message boards in 13 percent and IM in 8 percent, WHOA found.

The number of reported cases more than doubled from 196 cases in 2004 to 443 in 2005. Although reported cases have dropped to 372 in 2006, the results are a growing concern.

But WHOA President Jayne Hitchcock — who herself was the victim of a brutal Internet harassment attack a decade ago — cautioned against jumping to conclusions that the trend is actually on an upswing.

"I don't know if I can say that [Internet bullying] is on the rise, or that more people are coming forward saying they're being stalked and harassed," she said. "But the number of cases is on the rise."

Among the most disturbing trends Bhat discovered in her research was that kids as young as elementary-school age are now using technology like e-mail and IM and joining sites like Facebook and MySpace, so online abuse can begin much earlier.

"I'm hearing a lot of instances of cyber bullying starting at the elementary level," she said.

No matter what platform is used or at what age, online harassment has a common thread. As in the Meier case, Web taunting often begins with the attacker gaining the victim's trust and then tearing them down with verbal abuse, according to Bhat.

"The hurt and traumatization that come from being cut down in that manner is pretty strong," she said. "Parents need to know who these people [communicating with their kids online] are."