"With a new arsenal of Web sites and chat rooms, mean kids can torment their victims 24/7 online - often with devastating results."
At 13 Alex* hung with a popular crowd, had a quick wit and got good grades. Unknown to his parents, a group of girls at his school had been taunting him for about a month through instant messages, teasing him about his size and challenging him to perform physical activities he couldn't accomplish, like running around the school track in a certain time or jumping across a ditch.
Alex spent many hours chatting online in his bedroom. Other kids knew he was thinking about taking his own life, his mother says. "They were trying to dare him to commit suicide, thinking it was a big joke."
He was deadly serious. One afternoon last June, while he was home alone, Alex pulled his grandfather's antique shotgun out from under a bed, loaded it with shells and killed himself.
He had deleted every file from his computer but left a final message on it that read, "The only way to get the respect you deserve is to die." Only later did his parents learn about the online teasing, when his mother overheard some girls talking about it. "If someone is picking on you in the school yard, you can go home," says his mother, who is haunted by thoughts that she should have been more vigilant monitoring Alex's Web use. "When it's on the computer at home, you have nowhere to go."
"No one knew what was going on," says a guidance counsellor at his school. "Not his Sunday school teachers, not his school teachers, not his parents. If this could happen to him, it could happen to anyone."
*Some names in this story were changed to protect the privacy of the teens or their families.
By Bob Meadows, with Jenni Bergal, Washington D. C.; Steve Helling, Tampa; Jennifer Odell, Pittsburgh; Ellen Piligian, Birmingham, Mich.; Caroline Howard; Molly Lopez, New York City; Darla Atlas, Forth Worth and Len Hochberg, Los Angeles
Adapted from Meadows, B, 2005, "The Web: The Bully's New Playground", People, vol. 63 issue 10, pg. 152, 14th March 2005, Time Inc., New York (USA) by special permission PEOPLE Magazine; © 2005 Time Inc. All rights reserved.