emilyI have remarked more than once that I feel really grateful to have come of age before smart phones, texting, social media, and (to some extent) the internet. In middle school and high school, whenever I stepped off of the bus around 3 pm (or returned from some athletic practice a bit later),

I was home. “Home” meant a quiet place to do homework. “Home” meant a hot meal with my family. “Home” meant a phone call on the family line to a friend or two. (Caveat: I know well how fortunate I am to have had this experience of “home,” and I am well aware that there are many for whom, sadly, “home” was not a safe or nurturing space.)

From time to time, I think about the idea of raising children. In considering all of the ways in which I am constantly connected to the outside world given the iPhone in my pocket and the laptop on my desk, I wonder how I will create that sense of “home as haven” for my children.

I am terrified of cyber bullying’s capacity to extend its reach into our homes.

The American Journal of Public Health published an online article this month detailing a study that showed an overall decrease in bullying among students in grades 6-10 in the United States from 1998 to 2010. The percentage of folks doing the bullying decreased from 16.5% to 7.5%. The percentage of folks who report having been bullied decreased from 13.7% to 10.2%. This study did not, however, account for cyber bullying.

Showing some different numbers for students age 12-18, the U.S. Department of Justice, in conjunction with the Bureau of Justice Statistics, released the results of the “School Crime Supplement” to the 2011 National Crime Victimization Survey. That study showed that, of the over 24 million students surveyed, 27.8% reported having been bullied. Of those 24 million students, 9% reported having been “cyber-bullied.” In order to obtain this information on cyber bullying, the U.S. Department of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics explained:

Students were asked if another student did any of the following behaviors anywhere to make them feel bad. Specifically, students were asked whether another student was hurtful, threatening, or insulting via electronic means, including the Internet (SC161), e-mail (SC170), instant messaging (SC162), text messaging (SC163), or online gaming (SC171); purposely shared private information about the respondent on the Internet or mobile phones (SC183); or purposefully excluded them from an online community (SC172). This is a created variable where students who responded “yes” to any of these behaviors were included in the “cyber-bullied” category.

That study found that 11.2% of females reported being cyber bullied compared to 6.9% of males. In that study, the males reported higher levels of ongoing cyber bullying compared to their female counterparts. Also in that study, regarding the nature of the online harassment, females reported much higher rates of “hurtful information on the internet,” “unwanted contact via instant messaging,” and “unwanted contact via text messaging.” Males reported more instances of “unwanted contact via online gaming.”

I realized that most of the literature about cyber bullying that I found was talking about girls and young women. The emerging portrait of a cyber bully was, frankly, not what I had expected.

Is it that bad? It was that bad for Rebecca Sedwick (age 12) from Florida who jumped to her death from a tower at an abandoned cement factory. It was that bad for Jessica Logan [link no longer active] (age 18) from Ohio who hanged herself after her ex-boyfriend circulated a naked photo of her to other female high school students. It was that bad for Daisy Coleman [site no longer live] (age 16) from Missouri who attempted suicide after a brutal onslaught of internet harassment after she alleged that a member of the Maryville­­ high school football team raped her. It was that bad for Jessica Laney (link no longer accessible) (age 16) from Florida who hanged herself after enduring online harassment targeting her weight.

You would be right to point out that we have not explored any possible extenuating circumstances that these young people were facing. We do not know if they were “predisposed” to this type of behavior. We have not explored their home lives or their mental health histories. We do know, however, that they each experienced some type of internet harassment.

When I started working on this article, I intended to write a piece about how male adolescents use bullying as a means of teaching and policing masculinity. I intended to write about how online harassment has made this even more pervasive and poisonous. My intentions were entirely derailed when I realized that most of the literature about cyber bullying that I found was talking about girls and young women. The emerging portrait of a cyber bully was, frankly, not what I had expected.

In a 2012 article in the International Journal of Cyber Criminology titled “Battle of the sexes: An examination of male and female cyber bullying,” the authors found that “females were more likely than males to post gossip online about others to hurt them.” The authors write, “This finding confirms previous literature that asserted females participate in bullying that involves emotional and psychological abuse, which involves gossiping and spreading of information.” Though this study looked at undergraduate students, I believe that these results hold if we extend backward into their high school and middle school years.

Why do we do this? What is it with this ritualized harassment of girls and young women, most often at the hands of other girls and young women? Although I will eventually write the post about the bullying by/of male adolescents, I do want to posit a few potential differences in the gendered nature of bullying and how we perceive it. It occurs to me that, when we consider the bullying of male adolescents at the hands of other males, we tend to remark that the bullied individual was a “target.” He may not conform to our traditional notions of masculinity or of sociability. When violence erupts in a school, one of the first questions the media asks is whether the aggressor, most often male, was bullied. When we consider the bullying of female adolescents at the hands of other females, we often focus on the bullies, the “mean girls.” They ruthlessly attack some undeserving victim. Why this gendered difference in how we perceive bullying and who is responsible in each instance? Is it that “boys will be boys” while we expect our girls to be ladies? Has our indictment of female bullies pushed them toward anonymous, insidious modes of bullying?

Ask.fm is a website where you can “post anonymous comments and questions to a person’s profile.” It also happens to be credited with a number of global suicides allegedly resulting from cyber bullying. That petition alleges that 15 global suicides “in just over a year” can be tied to the website. 11 of the 15 individuals are girls and young women. One individual on that list, 14-year-old Nadia from Italy, sought support on the website after her boyfriend broke up with her. Among the anonymous messages she allegedly received through the website were: “Kill yourself” and “Nobody wants you.”

Cyber bullying can be public. Cyber bullying is permanent. Cyber bullying can happen anywhere at any time. Even when you turn off your computer and your phone, it continues. It continues without you. One quick, anonymous post can go viral, can follow someone forever. The ease and anonymity with which it can be done coupled with its lasting, potentially devastating impact makes cyber bullying a serious threat to our communities and our homes – and one that we must address.

What can we do? Sure, we can continue to promote anti-bullying educational programs. They do seem to be doing some good according to that American Journal of Public Health study. That said, we need to do more to address cyber bullying specifically given what we know about how it is importantly different from other forms of bullying. We need to have frank discussions about what it is like to be on the receiving end of such an attack. We need to start talking about the problematic natures of social capital, school yard hierarchies, and how (and on whom) power is conferred. These conversations are difficult and important, and chances are, we could all use a refresher.