It is insidious, often anonymous and always deeply hurtful.
In one case, it was a Japanese teen photographed in his school change room by a camera phone. In a U.S. case, it was an ex-girlfriend's head shot pasted electronically onto a pornographic picture. In a third, it was a full-figured Canadian boy acting out Star Wars moves in a homemade video. In each case, the hurtful image was beamed around the digital universe, the better to heap scorn upon the victim.
It's called cyber bullying. Already common in North America, it is about to become rampant, driven by the army of Internet-connected camera cellphones that preteens and teenagers received as gifts over the recent holiday season, experts warn.
"I hate to say it, but this issue is going to get worse before it gets better," Bill Belsey said from his home in Alberta. Mr. Belsey is one of the world's foremost experts on the phenomenon and the creator of the website www.cyberbullying.ca.
Cyber bullying - also known as digital bullying or Internet bullying - is harassment that takes place using an electronic medium. That can be through e-mails, instant messaging, chat rooms on the Internet, small text messages, on-line voting booths, and even websites set up especially to mock and humiliate.
Girls usually get bullied about their appearance, and boys about their sexual orientation.
The phenomenon has grown over the past three or four years throughout North America as teenagers and preteens become ever more closely attached to the Internet. Until now, this has often meant that a student - to be bullied digitally - needed to be sitting at a computer connected to high-speed or a telephone line. This is what is changing, and quickly.
Now, teens and preteens in North America are following the lead of their cellphone-toting counterparts in the United Kingdom, other parts of Europe and Japan by becoming huge consumers of cellphones that hook wirelessly to the Internet. These often have picture and instant text-messaging features, some of the points that make them such popular gifts.
Instant messaging, for example, is expanding at a faster rate now than e-mail grew at the same stage of its evolution, Mr. Belsey said. An Environics Research Group survey taken in 2002, before the holiday surge of Internet-connected mobile phones, showed that nearly 60 per cent of Canadian students used chat rooms and instant messaging even then, he said.
The trend means that cyber bullying is poised to become far more widespread, faster and even harder for adults to monitor, said Glenn Stutzky, a professor at the school of social work at Michigan State University and one of the key researchers in cyber bullying.
"It's like kids 11 to 17 have created a cyber community, an interactive world largely unknown to adults and unsupervised," Prof. Stutzky said.
He and Mr. Belsey say that cyber bullying is worse than the regular schoolyard kind because it knows no bounds of time, space or geography. A bullied child used to be able to go home to escape. Now, bullying can happen when a child is in his or her own bedroom with a cellphone.
Because this is such a new issue, many adults are not aware of it. It also tends to be under the radar for police, even when the bullying includes threats. The Calgary police have issued a warning on the phenomenon, explaining that written death threats are a different beast from schoolyard taunts. Mr. Belsey said the Calgary force is one of the first in North America to peg cyber bullying as a major problem.
Part of the concern is that cyber bullying is often even more cruel than the in-person kind.
That's because the cyber bullies can often hide their true identities with digital bafflegab and dodge reprisals, Prof. Stutzky said. Being anonymous and far away, they are also immune to the tears of the bullied and removed from feeling empathy for them, he said. The result is painful and sometimes debilitating.
"Bullying, when it comes into our lives, comes in a way that takes over our lives," Prof. Stutzky said. "It's like domestic violence. You know it's only a matter of time before it comes again. It hurts because your life is no longer your own; someone else is in control."
The most famous Canadian example is Ghyslain Raza, who became known around the world as the "Star Wars Kid" last year after some schoolmates got their hands on a video he had made of himself wielding a golf ball retriever as a light sabre and providing his own sound effects.
The 15-year-old's homemade video ended up digitized and placed on a file-sharing network and has been downloaded by millions of interested spectators around the world. Clones of the pudgy would-be combatant have been digitally inserted into versions of Benny Hill, The Matrix, Mortal Kombat, The Hulk and The Lord of the Rings.
Ghyslain was so wounded by the unflattering attention that he has been under psychiatric care and finished last year's school session at a child psychiatry ward. His parents have launched a lawsuit.
Technology has advanced so quickly since then that Ghyslain's ordeal is no longer so cumbersome to implement, nor so rare.
Take the case that Mr. Belsey heard this summer of a Japanese boy, hot and sweaty after his gym class, who was getting dressed in what he thought was the privacy of the school's change room.
One of his classmates, moved to ridicule by the boy's large size, took a covert picture of him with a cellphone camera. Within seconds, the picture was flying to the cellphones of the sweaty boy's schoolmates through instant messaging. By the time the boy was dressed and back in class, he was the laughingstock of the school.
A 16-year old Japanese girl told Mr. Belsey of the nightmare that happened after she broke up with her boyfriend. The boy knew all her contact numbers, including e-mail, cellphone and street address, and posted them on sex-oriented websites all over Japan. People were driving by her home and instant-messaging her.
Paul Denison, principal of Nicholson Catholic College, a high school in Belleville, Ont., said he has seen so many victims of cyber bullying in his office and that of his school counsellors that he has launched a campaign at the school to make parents and students aware that it is happening and is not acceptable. Mr. Belsey recently did a series of seminars at the school in aid of that.
"We don't have a lot of good ways of intervening," Mr. Denison said. "Right now, the phase we're in is awareness."
To Mr. Belsey, North American adults have a chance to tackle the problem before it becomes as entrenched as it is in other countries, and before the technology here catches up to advances in Japan and Britain which he says are three or four generations ahead.
"We have a window of opportunity to get ahead of this," he said.
Prof. Stutzky has some tips on how to do this. He said parents and educators need to learn the technology so they can figure out what's going on and start to talk about it. They also need to set up guidelines for appropriate use of the technology.
Children need to refuse to respond to cyber bullying taunts, be careful not to give out personal information such as passwords and to tell adults if harassment goes on. And schools should focus on explaining to students and parents that cyber bullying is just as serious as any other kind and make sure they know who to talk to in school administration if it does happen.