Cyberbullying isn't just a problem among adolescents. Adults engage in it, too. From online vigilantism and angry blogs to e-stalking and anonymous ranting on newspaper Web sites, grownups can be as abusive as the meanest schoolhouse tyrant.
The suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier in 2006 thrust adult cyberbullying into the open. The Dardenne Prairie, Mo., girl killed herself after receiving cruel messages on MySpace from imposters posing as a 16-year-old boy named "Josh Evans."
Lori Drew, the mother of one of Megan's friends, was accused of participating in the hoax along with her teenage daughter and a former teenage employee. Drew has denied sending messages to Megan. While questions remain about Drew's role, the case has left no doubt that the Internet is rife with adult cyber passion.
After the suicide came to light, an outraged mother several states away ferreted out Drew's identity and posted it on a blog.
Soon, "an army of Internet avengers . . . set out to destroy Lori Drew and her family," forcing them from their home and "vowing them no peace, ever," newspaper columnist Barbara Shelly wrote. "Who are these people who have made it their business to destroy her? They are a jury with laptops, their verdict rendered without insight into the dynamics of two families or the state of mind of a fragile 13-year-old girl or even a complete explanation of what actually occurred."
Internet shaming is a growing cultural phenomenon, but Daniel Solove, a professor of law at George Washington University and author of the 2007 book The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor and Privacy on the Internet, says it can backfire.
"Internet shaming is done by people who want actually to enforce norms and to make people and society more orderly," he said. But instead, "Internet shaming actually destroys social control and makes things more anarchic, and it becomes very hard to regulate and stop it."
Among its many controversial uses, online technology is employed by some citizens to track or expose sex offenders — including those who themselves use the Internet to exploit others.
Perverted-justice.com is famous for its efforts, sometimes in combination with televised sting operations, to expose online predators. In 2006, a former Texas district attorney committed suicide when police tried to arrest him on a warrant linked to a child-predator sting that was a joint operation between Perverted Justice and NBC's "Dateline."
While some criticize such stings as a form of vigilantism, others worry about those who use state online sex-offender registries to pursue their own brand of justice.
In a report last year of U.S. sex-offender policies, Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group in New York, concluded that unfettered public access to online sex-offender registries left former offenders open "to the risk that individuals will act on this information in irresponsible and even unlawful ways. There is little evidence that this form of community notification prevents sexual violence."
In a section of the report on "vigilante violence," Human Rights Watch wrote: "A number of convicted sex offenders have been targets of violence from strangers who take it upon themselves to 'eliminate' sex offenders from communities. In April 2003, Lawrence Trant stabbed one New Hampshire registrant and lit fires at two buildings where registrants lived. When he was arrested, police found a printout of New Hampshire's sex-offender Internet registry, with checkmarks next to the names of those already targeted."
Cyber vigilantism also can occur in the realm of global terrorism. Some experts say that private citizens who seek to monitor and close down terror-linked Web sites are hurting the government's own investigations.
"It is very unlikely they will find something of significance on the Internet that the government doesn't already know," said Michael Radu — a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a think tank in Philadelphia — who studies revolutionary and terrorist groups. "They are redundant at best."
Actress Tricia Walsh Smith, who is being divorced by Philip Smith, president of the biggest theater chain on Broadway, posted a video on YouTube containing derogatory information about their sex life. (Getty Images/Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic)
Sometimes it's an adult's private blog, podcast or video that gets others the most upset. In April, Tricia Walsh Smith, being divorced by Philip Smith — president of the Shubert Organization, Broadway's biggest theater chain — put a video on YouTube containing derogatory information about their sex life.
Yet, just as adolescents may learn to ignore the online gossip and cyber belittling that course through their cell phones and MySpace pages, adults may tire of what some call "net-venting."
"Most people who confront Web sites devoted to 'getting back' at other people for social sins may find them entertaining at first, but will tire of the novelty of electronic trash talk," David A. Furlow, a Houston attorney, wrote in a recent commentary. "Folk wisdom suggests that one should not wrestle with a pig, both because the wrestler gets dirty and the pig likes the challenge. The best response to the venom and vitriol of spite speech is to ignore it."