A Tormenting Problem: An Exploration of New-Age Bullying

One afternoon last year, Susan retrieved a phone message. It was brief, to-the-point, and the sort that makes a parent’s heart stop.

“There’s been an incident involving your daughter,’’ the high school assistant principal reported.

Susan raced to the school and was led to a room where she sat next to her sobbing daughter as the school psychologist began to speak.

A boy who had been chatting with her daughter by instant message had convinced her to send a topless photo of herself, the psychologist said. He had used his cellphone to send the photo to others at the school. A group of students who had long taunted her daughter orchestrated the photo prank, which was carried out by a boy who only pretended to be interested in her, Susan later learned.

“Stop everything,’’ Susan recalled thinking that day, as police filed in to investigate the potentially criminal transmission of the photo. “This isn’t happening to me.’’

The horror she felt is one that parents routinely dread. With a rash of high-profile suicides by students harassed at school in recent years and a new belief that bullying can cause severe emotional damage, incidents that once might have been dismissed as routine events of childhood are now viewed by many as clear and present dangers. Anxiety about them has taken a place alongside more familiar parental fears.

“The big worry used to be stranger danger,’’ said Danielle Champoux Bohnke of Melrose, mother of a kindergartner. “Now the people you know are equally dangerous.’’

Interviews with a wide range of parents — including some with very young children — found many struggling to cope with a threat that can seem to lurk everywhere. Seeking advice this fall, parents have filed into school auditoriums for school-sponsored lectures and have often left with more questions than answers: Are they inadvertently encouraging problem behavior in their children? What about the dangers online? Is monitoring Facebook enough, or should they bar their children from using it at all? Will they miss the warning signs and wind up in a principal’s office after the damage has been already done? Or the unthinkable: Could their child be driven to suicide?

The worries over bullying today are difficult for many parents to reconcile with how bullying was dealt with in their own school days — recollected by many as an unpleasant but passing nuisance, something a child simply had to outlast or fight his way through. Yet a growing body of research shows that bullying often has longlasting impacts, particularly in an age when the Internet and cellphones have dramatically changed the landscape. Humiliating photographs can be broadcast to hundreds with the stroke of a keyboard. Cutting remarks can come in floods through instant messages and cellphone texts. And it can all happen outside the view of parents or school administrators.

“It’s scary as a parent dealing with this stuff,’’ said Joan Shay of Danvers, the mother of two teenagers. Like many parents interviewed, she spot-checks Facebook, insisting from time to time that her daughter show her page. She checks to make sure her daughter has not been the recipient of untoward messages or, in the wake of a new state law that provides criminal penalties for bullying, that she has not sent any. Some parents go further and demand their children’s Facebook passwords so that they can check in at any time.

“Everyone thinks their kid’s a good kid, but you want to make sure,’’ Shay said.

As treacherous as the online world can seem, some say they worry most about what happens at school, where small slights might be nothing or might be the first signs of something serious.

Liz Potter of Danvers, said she now questions her 15-year-old daughter intensively about her friends and relationships — far more than she did when her older children were in high school. “I speak more candidly with her,’’ she said.

She has discovered, though, that if she asks directly about bullying, her daughter reveals little, if anything. So she offers nuggets of information about her daughter’s friends or happenings at school, hoping to flush out details about how she is interacting with others: “I heard such and such. What’s your take on that?’’

Such efforts to head off bullying before it becomes a problem have extended to some parents of very young children, like Sandi Boyle of Newburyport. She is planning to have discussions with her kindergarten-age daughter long before the girl is likely to encounter harmful bullying.

“I’m already rehearsing,’’ Boyle said as she watched the girl practice soccer. “I always have these imaginary talks with my daughter to let her know that she should come to me the minute she feels she is in that situation.’’

A number of parents said they have begun to wonder if their sons and daughters will be subject to bullying because they have personality quirks that make them stand out or because they are quiet and could come across as easy targets.

“It’s hard because we want him to remain a sensitive and innocent and generally nice kid,’’ said Amy Hulse, whose fourth-grade son in Newburyport has had trouble with bigger boys in his school. “But those are the types who are seen as the weak ones.’’

In a cruel twist for parents, the recent attention given to bullying in schools and homes has made it more difficult to identify true bullying, as the state has defined it — patterns of harassment including the “repeated use of verbal, physical, or electronic expression that causes another physical or emotional harm.’’

Children now are more prone to claim bullying, even when there is none, say educators and parents. Some schools have banned the term, for fear that students will use it as an accusation when they merely don’t like something another child did.

Doniel Kofel of Newburyport has learned she must wade through and carefully decipher her 8-year-old son’s accusations of bullying. “He’s said, ‘So and so bullied me.’ And I’ve said, ‘What happened?’ And he said, ‘We were playing outside and he took my shoes.’ ’’

Adding to the confusion, signs of true bullying are often nuanced and deliberately hidden from parents by children who feel shame and embarrassment.

“You have to be a perceptive parent to pick up on the bullying,’’ said Donna, a mother who said her daughter was verbally bullied and, at times, threatened with physical harm in elementary and middle school. The Globe is not publishing the last names of parents whose children have been involved in bullying, or the towns or schools where their children are students, out of concern for the children’s privacy.

“At that time, I just thought it was the way kids pick on each other,’’ Donna said. “I thought it was just brats being brats. We never called it bullying.’’

But then came high school. A group of girls took to following her daughter in the hallways, calling her a slut and a whore. Her daughter said nothing about it to her mother, but Donna recognized changes — long retreats to her bedroom, scant appetite, and bouts of crying.

Eventually, she confronted her daughter, who responded angrily but agreed to therapy. She changed schools and is now doing well, Donna said.

“She has her voice back. She doesn’t let people walk all over her,’’ she said.

In other cases, disbelief and pain can get in the way of a parent’s ability to see that a child is being bullied. Jeff, a father of two boys in a Boston suburb, had listened for months to his wife recount the abuse his younger son was enduring at his elementary school — kids refusing to let him play in games and verbally insulting him. In his mind, true bullying occurred at the middle school level, not in elementary school. In addition, his older son had suffered no bullying. “It wasn’t something I could grasp,’’ he said.

Then one day, his son, who was in second grade, told him about an incident at school.

“He said he had been on the play structure and other kids started walking on the other side, back and forth, eyeing him. I asked him what he did and he said he never got off the swings. He just stayed there all through recess. And I got it. It was terror. My son felt sheer terror.’’

With that realization, he joined his wife in a battle to secure a safer environment for his son — ending with the transferring of their son from public to private school after public school officials failed to take their concerns seriously, they said.

Friends often did not understand the depth of their despair over the abuse, leaving them feeling alone and unsupported. “It was like being trapped in a nightmare,’’ said his wife, Patricia.

To be on the other side — the parent of a child accused of bullying — yields its own form of social isolation for both parent and child.

Stacey, a mother of two daughters in another Boston suburb, said her elder daughter, a shy and quiet girl, suffered bullying for years. Then last year, her younger daughter, who is bolder and more assertive, was accused in fourth grade of taunting a girl in her class — climaxing when the girl accused her daughter of calling her fat, Stacey said. Her daughter said it wasn’t true, but the school transferred the girl who made the accusation to a new classroom. Soon, students throughout the school were taunting Stacey’s daughter as a bully.

It has left her daughter emotionally battered, Stacey said.

“She is socially isolated and is being accused of something she didn’t do,’’ Stacey said of her daughter, who is now in fifth grade. “They have ruined her reputation.’’

For Susan’s daughter, the road back from humiliation has been difficult. After the school’s discovery of the widely distributed topless photo, her daughter told her that returning to her high school to face the boy who had pretended to like her and the others involved felt “like a black cloak enveloping me.’’

Her mother removed her from the school two weeks later, but her daughter, who suffers from a neurological condition and mood disorder, spiraled downward. She was eventually hospitalized for emotional distress.

“She is seeing there are people she can trust, and hopefully she will learn a lot more about coping,’’ said her mother.

Meanwhile, Susan’s life and parenting have been radically altered. She no longer allows her two daughters to use Facebook, which she considers “a weapon of mass destruction.’’ She has quit her job to focus on her two daughters and she, like her husband, is in therapy. She does not plan to send her younger daughter to the public high school where her older daughter’s abuse took place.

“I cannot walk into that building without pain,’’ she said. “I would move out of this town, if I could.’’