Editor's note: Our sister paper, the Palo Alto Weekly, published this story. The entire in-depth package on cyberbullying has been posted here.
Recent studies, including one by University of California at Davis professor Robert Faris along with CNN, find that "social combat" among teens (including cyber-aggression) occurs in the school mainstream largely among friend groups as a means to achieve higher social status, feel better about themselves, and enforce norms of conformity.
Psychologist Carl Pickhardt wrote in "Why Good Kids Act Cruel": "As adolescents jockey for social position and ascendency, good kids are in danger of treating each other badly to feel better or keep from getting hurt. Unchecked, even good children can start believing that this mistreatment is okay."
Experts confirm that a sort of vicious cycle occurs online -- arising from the isolated "asocial" screen -- that can lead to escalating aggressive tactics used and then mirrored by each side. In this way, the traditional roles of "aggressor" and "aggressed" are fluidly interchanged. Researchers also find that mean behavior is not limited to one arena or the other; social cruelty typically blurs and bleeds from in-person to online and back again. Also, as many have observed -- from experts to teachers to teens interviewed for this story -- the older the teen, the more technologically sophisticated and clever in hiding identity or intention. Especially in this community, teens are wary of black marks on their school records, and they have developed underhanded ways to avoid detection or blame for mean acts.
Palo Alto teens report varied reasons for engaging in bullying or other mean online behavior, most of which they confirm occurs within friend groups. Reasons given include: revenge ("he deserved what he got"), bad moods ("a bad day can make you mean"), trying to be entertaining or get a laugh, wanting attention, thinking that being mean is a "way of showing love," being angry at someone and wanting to "call them out," fear of confronting someone in-person about a conflict, disputes with ex-boyfriends or girlfriends, "it's easier to be mean than to be nice to somebody," thinking it's OK to make racist or sexist jokes among friends, trolling for "likes" to increase popularity, the thrill of taking risks, wanting others to understand the problems you have with a friend and take your side, jealousy, boredom, "bullying is just a force of nature," wanting to "stir the nest," preying on a student with a "glaring difference" in order to get a laugh or feel superior, and "not sure why."
Some teens believe these are mostly excuses for behavior kids know is wrong.
"Kids know what is good and bad, and they know when they're crossing a line. If they do cross the line, they know they're doing it on purpose," one Palo Alto teen said.
Students described how hard girls can be on other girls, especially online, attaching the label "slut" (known as "slut shaming") if clothes are too revealing or if sexual activity is disapproved.
"The girl is a slut, the guy is a stud," one Paly senior observed.
The words "slut" or "whore" are used often online, and don't offend many.
"It's just so commonplace," one Paly student said.
"You have to strike that perfect balance in terms of your sexuality, or risk criticism," one Paly senior said. "There's a rigid image of what a girl our age is supposed to be. It's a lot of pressure."
Youth today typically enter this online territory at increasingly young ages. By 12 or 13, most kids have a Facebook account, according to Common Sense Media founder and Stanford University lecturer James Steyer, with or without parent permission.
Palo Alto's youngest teens are no exception; some learn fast how easy it is to sling nasty words around online. One Formspring exchange among middle school students provided to the Weekly featured numerous expletives along with "slut," "bitch" and "retard." A school dance was discussed using gross sexual images and provocative questions. Another Facebook chat referred to "fat midget" and "faggot" as well as sexually explicit words and images, with one line: "Go away b4 u get gang raped." Several phrases like "lol" and "hahaha" indicated posters may have been kidding around.
Ask.fm can be rougher for teens of all ages. A Weekly search revealed numerous accounts mentioning Palo Alto schools and students by name. Questions posed (anonymously) can range from the innocent, "What's your favorite ice cream?" to serious, "How many times have you attempted suicide?" to sexual or mean, "How many guys have u hooked up with this summer?" or "Hottest girls at (school)" (answers to this sort of question, often using names, can be sexist, hurtful or obscene) or "I think (named girl) is soo ugly, fat and gross. Like why do u even say hi to her?" The person answering sometimes will let the questioner know they have gone too far ("Wow. That's so mean. Just stop," or "'Faggot' is a very offensive word. ... Take a chill pill.")