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New technology brings new bullying problems

Anna Brubaker can't just run home to escape her bully like kids do in old black-and-white TV shows.

Her bullies follow her there.

Anna's mother says her daughter has received text messages on her phone saying, "The world would be better off without you" and "Why don't you just go kill yourself?"

Anna has also found people pretending to be her online, posting vulgar comments on various sites. The comments were accompanied by her name and her photo, but she says she hadn't posted them.

"They said, like, a whole bunch of bad things on there pretending it was me saying it," Anna says.

Anna's mother, Amy, says, "I mean, my daughter was just devastated."

It's a tough load to bear for anyone; it's especially tough at 13 years old.

"It makes me feel really bad and used," says the teen from Davenport.

The Brubakers' story is one of many. Bullying has become a national topic of concern following high-profile news stories about teens and college students committing suicide to escape peer tormenting.

But Anna's situation also illustrates just how bullying has changed over the decades.

Today's bully doesn't need to prowl lonely streets for victims or wait around after class in a school's playground to get to a victim. Rather, today's bully is always on attack and can do it from anywhere, thanks to the reach of the Internet and cell phones.

In the past, you could try to avoid bullies, says Terry Barrett, licensed psychologist at Discovery Counseling Center in Fargo, "and that no longer is really true."

Anna Brubaker knows how that feels.

"She still deals with it after school, in the summer and on weekends," says Amy Brubaker, who is pushing for anti-bullying legislation in North Dakota and working to create a nonprofit group to address the problem.

The more traditional, face-to-face bullying still happens, of course. Even so, while Chris Potter, a school resource officer at Fargo South High School, says he doesn't think the "basic concept" of bullying has changed, he does see a shift in how students go about it.

The form of bullying can include simple harassment, inappropriate comments, inappropriate pictures, digitally altered images and character assassination.

Potter also believes the comments of bullies have come to cut more deeply.

"And you have this willingness of kids to say and show things online that they would never do face-to-face," Potter says. "So the viciousness of the comments being made is far worse."

While word-of-mouth has always been fast, in today's digital world, those comments can travel at light speed.

"Once it goes viral, I mean, you can't stop it," Potter says.

The effects can be overwhelming. Potter tells of one instance in which "what we would probably call suggestive photos" of a female student began to circulate. They made their way to hundreds of students in the school she attended. The accompanying comments to and about the girl were brutal.

Potter says the effects can reach far beyond the duration of the bullying.

"When kids are bullied, it affects them, not just at that moment, but it affects them for life. I mean, they're in their formative years; they feel literally like they're under siege," he says. "And we have kids that are bullied in school that are literally going to face some lifelong problems because of that with self-esteem issues, depression, any number of issues."

And Barrett believes that with the advent of relatively new technologies, it's easier for people to jump on the bullying bandwagon. A person who, in earlier times, would have been a bystander can now engage in bullying behavior, "and they don't have to face the person they are bullying," he says.

It's a girl's world

Technology may not have been the only thing to change in the world of the bully. It seems that the old stereotype of the thuggish boy pushing other kids on the playground doesn't really work anymore -- if it ever did.

A 2009 British study found that girls are twice as likely to be victims of sustained bullying at primary schools because their friends form cliques and exclude them, according to a report in The Daily Mail.

The study, done by researchers at the Universities of Warwick and Hertfordshire, also found that bullied girls are more likely to experience physical confrontations in primary school than their male counterparts.

From what he's observed, Potter believes that girls have become more verbally and physically aggressive here, too.

"They're a lot more willing to escalate a situation into a physical confrontation. Years ago, girls were expected to act like ladies," he says.

Barrett says girls have been "encouraged and supported to find more assertive ways to interact."

Faceless bullies

Along with allowing for greater access to victims, technology also allows the bully to target someone with less chance of facing repercussions. The bully no longer has to get in their victim's fact to beat them down.

Scott Matheson, student assistant counselor/coordinator with Moorhead (Minn.) Public Schools, says "it can be done so anonymously.'

And that's something the Brubakers know all too well.

"She's not the same little girl anymore," she says. "She was happier, more excited, more outgoing. And we don't see a lot of that anymore ... It takes a lot more to get her to laugh."

Mercer is a reporter at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.