Recess was Allie Long's favorite part of the day until the second grade, when some of her friends on the playground pressured her to join their whisper campaign against a classmate.
Allie shrugged. She didn't want to hear their rumor or help spread it around. In an instant, her best friends since kindergarten became her tormenters.
"They started taunting and teasing her," said Allie's mom, Trudy Ludwig. "She was on this play structure and they blocked all of the exits and wouldn't let her off. They started moving closer to her. Allie just freaked out. One of the girls realized it was getting out of hand and got a teacher to help."
Bullying among adolescents has captured the attention of researchers, educators and parents alarmed by a parade of mean girls and cyber-bullies caught in mid-punch on viral video. But such aggression may not just happen in a whirl of adolescent hormones, some in the growing anti-bully movement argue.
Some older bullies were "Barbie brats" first.
In Allie's case, the kids were talked to, but things weren't the same at her Beaverton, Ore., school.
"My daughter cried herself to sleep on and off for several months," Ludwig said. "She had stomachaches. The phone stopped ringing. No playdates. No invitations to sleepovers."
They were just 7 years old.
Meline Kevorkian, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., researcher and public speaker on bullying, surveyed 167 educators last year and 25 percent indicated bullying occurs most in elementary schools. Research also indicates that three-quarters of 8- to 11-year-olds report they've been bullied, with more than half identifying it as a "big" problem, Kevorkian said.
"It could be you wear the wrong shoes or the wrong socks. If you didn't go to the Hannah Montana concert. Your lunch smells. You can't wear certain bows in your hair," she said. "It's not that the victims are all going to grow up and shoot kids in their high school, but it's the message that making fun of people will make you popular."
Rumor-spreading, teasing, exclusive clubs, secrets. What social scientists describe as "relational aggression" is often unjustly written off among younger kids as routine rites of passage not worthy of extra hands-on attention, Kevorkian and other anti-bully experts said.
Parents of targeted children agreed.
"Everybody seems under the impression that their child is well behaved in all settings," said Lisa Borre, whose 9-year-old son, Franklin, loves sports but is small for his age and often struggles for equal time during playground baseball and basketball games in Libertyville, Ill.
"Nobody is willing to believe their children might behave differently on the playground," she said. "I just sort of felt like at this age the kids would still be gentler, kinder, would still behave more like little children. It's almost like a smaller version of an adult world that he's dealing with."
Ludwig, who was inspired by her now 14-year-old daughter's experience to write four picture books on bullying, said girls in particular often connect by sharing secrets that can later be turned into weapons. Such verbal abuse and social manipulation, which Ludwig and other experts say is on the rise in boys, often flies under the radar of harried parents, teachers or baby sitters.
"It's evident in preschool. 'If you don't let me play with that toy I won't invite you to my birthday party,'" Ludwig said. "Intentional exclusion is bullying. Giving the silent treatment is bullying. It's not a part of growing up. It's not something kids can work out themselves. It's not normal conflict. We've normalized this abnormal behavior in our society."
Little research has tracked bullying among the very young, but the topic is beginning to gain momentum. Intervention programs, including fifth-graders tapped as peer mediators on playgrounds, began popping up a few years ago in elementary schools, but the institutional response to bullying is often piecemeal or inconsistent, advocates said.
Michele Borba, who writes and speaks frequently on bullying, felt so intensely about such incidents among the very young that she helped develop a "Caring Corners" dollhouse due on the market later this year, designed to talk to kids about positive behavior.
"Little kids are born to be kindhearted," Borba said. "They've got that natural empathy, but unless you nurture it, it lies dormant."
Nurturing empathy might be hard for competitive parents who scream at 6-year-olds during soccer games, or buy Coach bags for their girls, then wonder out loud who's carrying the knockoffs, said Barbara Kimmel, the mother of two boys, ages 11 and 14, in Morris County, N.J.
Technology makes it even harder.
"The cyber-bullying starts at 10 or 11 now," she said. "It's pervasive."
To psychologist Jennifer Hartstein, who works with troubled adolescents in New York City, signs are evident even earlier. She cites a recent party she attended for a 6-year-old that featured a pinata.
"It was, like, who can you step on and push fast enough to get the candy," she said. "It's this 'me generation' of I have to get what's mine. It's the precursor to more serious bullying. You really have to catch it as it happens at younger ages."