President Obama and the first lady spoke out against bullying Thursday, urging parents, schools and community leaders to look for ways to address a problem that they say has gotten worse in the age of the internet and social networking.

Joined at the White House Conference of Bullying Prevention by top advisers, cabinet officials and about 150 parents, teachers and school administrators, Obama said that bullying, which effects about 13 million children annually by one estimate, is behavior that doesn’t have to happen.

“If there’s one goal of this conference, it’s to dispel the myth that bullying is just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up.  It’s not,” said Obama, who acknowledged that he was bullied when he was younger. 

“As adults, we all remember what it was like to see kids picked on in the hallways or in the schoolyard.  And I have to say, with big ears and the name that I have, I wasn’t immune,” he said. “I didn’t emerge unscathed.  But because it’s something that happens a lot, and it’s something that’s always been around, sometimes we’ve turned a blind eye to the problem.  We’ve said, ‘Kids will be kids.’  And so sometimes we overlook the real damage that bullying can do, especially when young people face harassment day after day, week after week.

First lady Michelle Obama said, “This issue really hits home for us” as parents.

“It breaks our hearts to think that any child feels afraid every day in the classroom, on the playground, or even online,” she said.

The first lady said that she knows how hard it is to figure out what is going on at school. When she asks her younger daughter, Sasha, what happened at school, she said, her response is always the same: Nothing.

“As parents we know we need to make an effort to know what’s going on in our kids lives,” she said. “We something is wrong, we need to speak up.”

The White House has launched a Web site,, as a clearinghouse for information on prevention. And the Department of Education is working with schools to implement guidelines for dealing with the problem. Additionally, the nation’s two largest teacher unions will launch prevention campaigns.

The focus on bullying followsrecent new reports that several young people committed suicide after being bullied. Last fall, the president, Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton taped messages as part of the “It Gets Better” campaign, a public awareness effort aimed at gay youth.

The White House conference will include break-out sessions led by senior administration officials. It wraps up at 2 p.m.