And as tweens and teens make the jump from the real world to the one created on the Internet, an old problem is following them from the playground: bullying.
The Anti-Defamation League of Philadelphia sponsored the program "Trickery, Trolling and Threats: Understanding and Addressing Cyberbullying" at Colonial Middle School in Plymouth Meeting on May 1 — "No Place for Hate" day in Pennsylvania.
Cyberbullying is defined as "willful and repeated harm through electronic media," explained Boyette, assistant regional director for the ADL in Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware. "The impact is not one incident; the impact is magnified" because of the immediate and widespread nature of e-mail and mobile phones.
The Internet provides many new opportunities for students, added the ADL's Pauline Garcia-Allen, project director for "No Place for Hate," but "it does offer an opportunity to perpetrate hate."
Types of cyberbullying are varied, and range from harassment with threatening e-mail and messages to impersonating other students online to damage their reputations.
Garcia-Allen noted that while most kids use social networking sites for positive reasons, they can also provide a venue for cyberbullying.
"A lot of times, kids have no idea who these people are," she said, referring to "friends" on social networking sites. She encouraged adults to work with their children to use privacy settings in such cases.
In traditional bullying, the aggressor has the power, explained Boyette. Sometimes, kids who are the target of this kind of formidable behavior become bullies themselves through cyberspace — to feel powerful through the cloak of anonymity.
And whereas traditional bullying peaks in middle school and tends to peter out in later years, high school can wind up a prime breeding ground for cyberbullying, she said, often not discriminating between the sexes. While bullying was once often a male endeavor, females aren't shying away from it, albeit in their own verbal ways.
"There seems to be a sense that girls are every bit as involved," attested Boyette.
Cyberbullying also goes unreported, because the first reaction for parents is to break the connection that carries the bullying by taking away the computer or phone. Students don't want their technology confiscated, and thus tend to hide what is happening, even as the problem persists.
Establishing clear lines of communication is key, said Boyette, both for students to report transgressions, and for parents and teachers to be able to talk about the issues involved.
"Kids feel that if they say something, nothing's going to happen," she said, going on to note that students need to feel that results will come after they've spoken up against the aggressors. "There needs to be some kind of safe reporting set-up."
On the other side of the argument, she encouraged parents and teachers to establish Internet guidelines and to monitor what kids are doing on the Web. She acknowledged that kids won't like such intervention, but that's often the case when it comes to parenting, and besides, she said, "who cares? Do it anyway!"
Schools and parents need to make repercussions clear, she added, and schools need to talk with their staff. She encouraged parents and teachers to tell the targets of bullies to save the evidence and inform an adult of what's happening.
"You want to really urge them to tell what's going on," she said to those present. "The shame is not on them."