Menlo Park Police officer Jaimee Tassio recently talked to a group of parents and students at Hillview Middle School about cyber-bullying and ways children can be safe online. "Kids can be mean without really thinking about it," she said.
Officer Tassio reminded parents that, in addition to cyber-bullying, there are many ways for children to be victimized online, including hacking, threats, spamming, pornography and child enticement.
Because it is impractical, and sometimes counter-productive, to ban all Internet use by children, parents need to "give them the tools so they can deal with it if something bad happens," Officer Tassio said.
While the Menlo Park police say they have not investigated any local cyber-bullying cases in the past year, Officer Tassio talked about recent cases that received national attention, including two 13-year-olds, Ryan Halligan and Megan Meier, who killed themselves after being bullied online.
"It's very heart-wrenching because these kids never had a chance. They never told anybody," she said.
Young teens are most at risk, Officer Tassio said. "The most vulnerable age is middle school," she said.
The anonymous nature of the Internet allows those who use it to do and say things they would not do in a face-to-face encounter, she said, especially not with an adult present. "Whatever inhibitions you have ... it's all gone online," she said. "There's no filter."
Officer Tassio said that cyber-bullying can be harder on a child than face-to-face bullying. "They can't escape from it," she said. "They're getting beat up at school and then they're getting beat up online."
Making it worse, she said, the bully is "almost always somebody who knows the victim."
Parents and teachers often do not even know a child is being bullied. "More often than not (the victims) don't report it," she said.
"It's tragic how these stories keep popping up over and over again."
A study released in November by the Pew Research Center found that 95 percent of children ages 12-17 are now online and 80 percent of those use social media sites such as Facebook.
In the Pew survey, 88 percent of the youth who used social networking sites said they had seen someone be mean or cruel to another person on a site, and 15 percent said they themselves had been bullied during the past year.
The study found the number of children affected by cruel behavior online was statistically the same, no matter the gender, race or socio-economic status.
The authors found that 9 percent of the children surveyed had been bullied via text message and another 7 percent by voice calls in the last 12 months; while 8 percent said they had experienced online bullying.
Girls experienced more bullying of all types except in-person bullying, which happened to boys and girls nearly equally at 12 percent overall.
Of the children surveyed who used social media, nearly 67 percent said they had seen others join in harassment, with 21 percent saying they themselves had joined in.
One other recent study showed that at least one perceived Internet threat is not as common as had been thought. A study published online on Dec. 5 in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, found that "sexting" or sending sexually explicit pictures online or via cell phone, does not happen as often among youth as had been earlier reported.
The report found that only 1 percent of the 10- to 17-year-olds surveyed had sent or received images that would meet the definition of child pornography in the past year. However, nearly 10 percent of those surveyed said they had sent or received "sexually suggestive" images on their phones or computers during that year.
The report also found that most children who received the images did not pass them on.
"Moreover, few of these images were being forwarded or posted, situations that could put youth at risk for having their images circulated online," the study's authors reported.
They cautioned that: "Young people need to be instructed that the possession of sexually explicit images of minors is currently a criminal offense and that such images should be deleted and never retransmitted."