Schoolgirl bullies are using online instant-messaging programmes to pretend to be someone else when they contact their victims, new research reveals.
A third of bullying victims have experienced tactics of this kind, with their tormentors extracting personal information under false pretences, according to Donna Kernaghan of Queen's University Belfast.
And social networking sites have created opportunities for pupils to leave abusive comments on each other's profiles or to upload embarrassing photographs of their victims, Ms Kernaghan said.
She questioned almost 500 girls in Years 9, 10 and 11 about their experiences of bullying. Fifty-six per cent said they had been bullied at some point. Of those, more than a quarter had experienced physical bullying.
However, subtle forms of victimisation were more common. "These types of aggression can be invisible to adults," Ms Kernaghan said. "Often the bully will put a lot of effort into not being detected or labelled as a bully by adults."
Instant messaging, which allows real-time written conversations online, was the most common medium for cyberbullying. Because it identifies correspondents only by a username, bullies can correspond anonymously with their victims. Almost one in five girls reported typing hurtful comments on Instant Messenger that they would not say face to face.
Alternatively, bullies pretend to be someone else. A third of girls surveyed said that someone else had assumed their identity online. And one in five said that they had pretended to be someone else.
By assuming the identity of one of their victim's friends, they encourage her to share personal information which is then copied and pasted into emails or instant messages to other bullies.
"This means that girls who thought they were having a private conversation can find that what they said can be sent to many more contacts," said Ms Kernaghan.
Bullies also use social networking websites such as Bebo, MySpace and Facebook. Thirty per cent of girls surveyed said they had received spiteful or abusive comments on their profiles. These can be viewed by the victim's online contacts, who then take sides, supporting the victim or joining in with the abuse.
Bullies also embarrass their victims by posting photos on social networking sites. A third of girls said someone they knew had posted compromimsing photos of them on the internet. "The potential audience to view photos is huge," said Ms Kernaghan.
She believes it is vital that teachers are educated in the opportunities for bullying that new technology presents.
"As adults have not experienced this type of bullying in their own childhood, they can find it difficult to understand their child's experience," she said.
"Cyberspace has been likened to a modern-day Lord of the Flies and the Wild West of modern times."
Sue Steel of the Anti-Bullying Alliance said teachers should try to address ways in which the internet can be used as tool for bullying during ICT, PSHE and citizenship classes.
"There's no single or easy answer to the problem," she said. "The whole school community has a role in helping to promote the safe and positive use of technology."