NEW YORK – If may affect as many as half of U.S. teenagers, can be as bad or worse than being beaten up in the schoolyard, and is so relentless and emotionally devastating that suicide can sometimes be the result.
Whether it is through emails, instant messaging, cell phones, texting or websites, cyberbullying is a growing problem.
In the past 10 years 37 U.S. states have adopted legislation mandating that schools implement anti-bullying statutes.
"It is becoming something that people recognize as a significant issue as more and more students start talking about it, and unfortunately, as these extreme cases of suicide and students hurting themselves is becoming more prevalent," said Dan Tarplin, the New York Educational Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which fights anti-Semitism and bigotry.
Unlike schoolyard taunts or fights, Tarplin said the anonymity of electronic media can embolden bullies and its pervasiveness enables a nasty comment, a harsh remark, an unflattering photo or video to be sent to countless numbers of people in an instant.
"With electronic forms of bullying there is no refuge," said Scott Hirschfeld, director of curriculum and training in ADL's education division, who created its program to raise awareness to counter cyberbullying.
"Here it is 24/7. It is always online. Even if you turn off your computer you know that Web page is up, or that people are spreading this rumor about you. The relentlessness of it is very psychologically devastating."
Teenagers at a day-long ADL conference said they thought cyberbullying was "just messing around" until they heard John Halligan speak about his 13-year-old son Ryan, who committed suicide in 2003 after years of bullying, both on and offline.
"He was continually harassed about being potentially gay," Halligan, a former manager at IBM who now tells Ryan's story at schools around the country, said in an interview.
Halligan only discovered the extent of the torment his son had endured after his death.
"He was trying to manage the situation on his own, which a lot of these kids do, tragically," he said. "I never anticipated that his peers would become such a danger to him."
Halligan encourages bystanders, students who are aware of cyberbullying and choose to do nothing, to use the power of peer pressure to stop it.
His message to parents is to speak to their children.
"Make sure you turn that computer off, often, and have a sit-down conversation about what is going on in their lives. Create as much opportunity as you can to allow them to express their feelings and what they might be going through."
Halligan was instrumental in getting a Bullying Prevention Law passed in Vermont seven months after Ryan's death.
For those states that don't already have one, Tarplin said the ADL's civil rights department has created model legislation to help lawmakers lobby for laws to address bullying and cyberbullying.
"It would make schools and other institutions accountable to insure that prevention measures were happening in their institutions," he said.