When Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi jumped to his death last fall after being outed as gay online, his case not only fell into a category of rising gay teen suicides but to a rise in cyber bullying as well.
Cyber bullying is harassment by use of information and communication technology such as email, text messages and websites, according to Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld, a professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Iowa State University.
"Getting bullied by someone online is just as real as getting bullied in person in life," said Ky Thien Nguyen, a fourth-year mathematics student at UCLA. "I feel lucky that it hasn't happened to me yet online, but I can't say that I won't ever be, anything can happen."
Even though incidents of face-to-face bullying have declined in recent years, cyber bullying has seen an increase in the sheer number of cases, according to Blumenfeld. The appeal for the perpetrator is that they can often get away with this type of harassment because of the anonymity of cyberspace. Perpetrators can also steal a victim's phone or password, and send messages in their name.
In a 2010 National College Climate Survey Blumenfeld co-authored, he found that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youths are at higher risk of being cyber bullied, with 54 percent of respondents stating that they have been targeted by cyber bullying within the past three months. However, Blumenfeld notes that a larger percentage has been bullied sometime in their life and that any group or individual is a potential target.
Research at Indiana State University has also suggested that 38 percent of college students reported knowing someone who had been cyber bullied, nearly 22 percent reported having been cyber bullied themselves and almost 9 percent admitted to cyber bullying someone else.
In addition, 25 percent of students reported being harassed through a social networking site, 21 percent reported that they received harmful text messages, 16 percent receiving such harmful communication through e-mail and 13 percent through instant messages, according to Bridget Roberts-Pittman, an assistant professor at Indiana State University.
Blumenfeld states that perpetrators may also start websites such as "polling booths," where students from high schools and college campuses vote on which of their peers is ugliest, fattest and so forth.
Another form of cyber bullying entails exposing a target's sexuality to the community, as in the case of Tyler Clementi. In some cases, non-supportive parents who find out may take away financial funding from the exposed student and he or she could end up alone, according to Blumenfeld.
Males and females are about equally likely to be the victims of cyber bullying, at 21 and 22 percent respectively, according to Roberts-Pittman.
"In terms of ethnicity, our results are premature at this point given the number of ethnic minority participants," she said. "Our current results suggest that nearly 22 percent of white students reported being cyber bullied while 24 percent of non-white students reported experiencing the same behaviors."
In terms of sexual orientation, LGBT students were more likely than heterosexual students to report having seen someone else being bullied by another student, as well as to report knowing someone who had been cyber bullied.
The main explanation for why cyber bullying can become so nasty is the disinhibition effect. The perpetrators are anonymous and emotionally disconnected from their targets. They develop less empathy online because they don't see their target or the consequences of their actions, and they don't face any consequences.
Blumenfeld believes that when Clementi's roommate posted a video of Clementi having sex with another man, the incident didn't mark the first time Clementi was cyber bullied.
"We see in many incidents of suicide, 75 percent of campus shootings during the 1990s were due to the victims being bullied and cyber bullied," Blumenfeld said. "Homicides and suicides are the same side of the coin, with the victims killing others or killing themselves."
Many young people may be less inclined to report cyber bullying because they view adults as not "technically savvy" or as aware of online environments, Roberts-Pittman said. Secondly, some fear that adults will take away their phones or computer privileges if they become aware of any cyber bullying. Thirdly, young people may not have confidence in adults taking any actions to stop such bullying.
According to Roberts-Pittman, many of the young people that she works with say that they had told someone before about the bullying and nothing was done. Nevertheless, she added that the first thing students need to do is become educated about the behavior and then speak out when it is happening.
Blumenfeld advises students not to automatically delete the messages, but instead record instances of cyber bullying and report it to local officials like campus administrators or local police.
Blumenfeld also noted that campuses should have policies that include cyber bullying in their list of unacceptable behaviors and conduct staff training to combat cyber bullying. Colleges need to have speakers talk about intolerance and oppression and about how parents should be educated on issues of cyber bullying.
Roberts-Pittman recommends students follow the five "R's" of the Steps for Respect program to combat cyber bullying.
1) Recognize the behavior as cyber bullying
2) Refuse to participate in the behavior
3) Report it
4) Record the information
5) Receive (adults need to be receptive when students tell us it is happening).
Some people are sensitive about personal information that nevertheless is leaked out to the public domains online, according to Nguyen. Students should be cautious about the personal information they put up about themselves online as well as who they contact.
"Let's face it, it's reality and it does happen, even with the enabling of security on the social websites," Nguyen said. "The world is a rough place due to the diversity of people, with different personalities and all."
He advises victims to immediately stop all contact with anyone who is a cyber bully and get help immediately.