When I first heard that a 13-year-old girl had committed suicide over mean messages that were circulating over the Internet, I wanted to cry. And I assumed that the notes were being circulated by her peers.

I figured it was teenage girls being nasty because that seems to be common these days. My own girls are 9 and 10, and I have seen firsthand the ego-shattering effect of peer-to-peer pettiness. One of my girls was briefly "cut out" from the herd earlier this year because another girl decided she'd been snubbed.

It seems like a minor thing; it was anything but, given the universal need of children to feel like they fit in. My daughter was miserable, and I had a hard time convincing her not to grovel in apology for the imaginary slight that sparked the weeks-long emotional drubbing.

The process of ostracizing someone is an active one, with lots of effort to recruit other participants.

On the positive side, my daughter's in grade school, so she was at least spared the high-tech nastiness that seems to be growing. At her age, it's done person to person, with a whisper here and a sly glance there. A favorite technique, I've heard, is to stand in the middle of a group of girls and ask, almost casually, "You know who I think's a dork?" Then you name whoever is out of favor. Or you inquire sweetly who your target is playing with/doing a project with/likes, then try to recruit that individual to instead be your special, exclusive friend.

I hoped it was a minor incident that would blow over — and it did — but I decided to look into what's being called girl bullying. The book "Odd Girl Out" notes that most teachers don't pick up on it because girls aren't obvious like boys are when they bully. Nobody's demanding lunch money or shoving and hitting.

A study out of Canada found that, often, when the situation comes to a head, the wrong girl is blamed because the aggressor is often very "sweet" and "well-behaved" in the eyes of authority figures. And a slew of resources noted that girls brood internally when they're being bullied but are too embarrassed to confront it or point out what's going on, so the problem continues beyond what it might if, like boys, they wrestled in plain view where someone might intervene.

The techniques get more sophisticated and subtler as girls get older.

I was completely unprepared to learn that the messages involved in the incident in the news allegedly originated with a neighborhood mom and an 18-year-old. Neither will be charged with anything. I suspect our laws have not caught up with how to handle the more negative aspects of cyberspace-human interaction.

I don't know what sparked an adult's animosity toward an adolescent. I don't really care, either.

Adults are supposed to have a sense of fairness and a modicum of restraint. If nothing else, they should be both too mature and too busy to spend time picking on a kid in cyberspace.

Thankfully, most children will survive the hurts that everyone experiences as they're growing up. But if you think that this incident is unprecedented, it's not. The result was just unexpectedly tragic.

I was livid when my daughter was targeted, but I focused on listening to and encouraging her. I was lucky, because she talked to me about it. When I vented to friends, I was amazed at their own stories of being targeted by other girls as they were growing up. They've moved on, but decades later, the feeling and the passion about the incidents run hot. And they didn't face anonymous cyberspace.

Bullying has always been a problem, but the tools have changed. And we have to be smarter about spotting and stopping it.


Deseret Morning News staff writer Lois M. Collins may be reached by e-mail at [email protected].