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I'm, Like, So Being Harassed Online

You've heard of the mean girl syndrome, a streak of cruelty that subsumes young girls bent on agonizing, terrorizing and otherwise bullying other boys and girls they deem uncool, too pretty, smart or guilty of some unknown offense.

Looks like some of that behavior translates easily to the Web. About one third of all teenagers who use the Internet say they have been targets of menacing behavior online, according to new research from Pew Internet & America Life Project.

The behaviors include receiving threatening messages; having their private e-mails or text messages forwarded without consent; seeing an embarrassing picture posted without permission; or having rumors about them spread online.

The most common form of "cyberbullying," the study results found, was taking information once thought to be private and plastering it across the ether.

Whether mean girls are the main culprits behind online bullying isn't clear in the survey results. But Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist for Pew, said she found plenty of empirical evidence to suggest that the mean girl syndrome travels well onto the Web.

Several patterns are clear from this survey, Lenhart added. Girls are more likely than boys to be targets; and teens who share their identities and thoughts online are more likely to be targets than are those who lead less active online lives.

One tidbit that goes against the idea that the Internet is a bad place for kids to hang out: Pew said the majority of teens, 67 percent, said bullying and harassment happens more offline than online. The results said less than one in three teens (29 percent) thought bullying was more likely to happen online, and three percent said they thought it happened both online and offline equally.

Pew interviewed 935 teenagers by phone for the survey.

Here's how one 16-year-old respondent described her terror logic against a fellow student. "There's this boy in my anatomy class who everybody hates. He's like the smart kid in class. Everybody's jealous. They all want to be smart. He always wants to work in our group and I hate it. And we started this thing, some girl in my class started this I Hate [Name] MySpace thing. So everybody in school goes on it to comment bad things about this boy."

Why are they so mean? Lenhart said the focus groups asked teens about this and, for the most part they pretty much summed it up as the Internet mirroring life, virtually. Adolescent cruelty has simply moved from the school yard, the bathroom wall, and the phone, onto the Internet and the Web.

There's also the mediated nature of the communication that contributes to bullying, she told internetnews.com. "They don't get physical and or auditory cues [like they do offline] that say 'I've gone too far.' You don't see facial expressions or read body language. I think the lack of that emboldens people to say or do things they may not ordinarily do, which insulates teens from the consequences of their actions."

As one high school boy responded to the question of whether he had heard of cyberbullying: "I've heard of it and experienced it. People think they are a million times stronger because they can hide behind their computer monitor." This student called them "e-thugs," while displaying his own maturity about the practice: "Basically I just ignored the person and went along with my own civilized business."