They also invent new and creative ways to shame each other online.
The latest headline-grabbing example comes this week from McAuley Catholic High School in Northern England, where police say students created Instagram accounts that detail their classmates real or supposed sex lives, according to the Daily Mail. As in: Chloe just hooked up with Joey.
The accounts were inspired by Gossip Girl, an American TV series that aired from 2007 to 2012. The hit show, which reached 3.7 million viewers at its peak, followed a pack of rich, genetically blessed teens in New York City as an anonymous antagonist live-blogged their antics.
The British high schoolers' TMZ-esque posts appeared without consent from the teenagers who were targeted, authorities said, and may lead to criminal charges.
The McAuley Catholic case stands out for its sheer drama, but sexual harassment on the Web is increasingly common for youths in the United States and around the world. Surveys show perpetrators are often peers — and victims are disproportionately girls.
The U.S. Department of Education defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.” That includes sexual comments, jokes, requests and Instagram posts optimized for high school humiliation.
A study released this month by Michigan State University found a quarter of kids, ages 12 to 16, have experienced some form of sexual harassment from friends on the Internet. The survey of 439 middle and high school students found girls were the top focus.
A 2011 survey of nearly 2,000 students, grades 7 to 12, found that 48 percent had encountered sexual harassment during the school year. One-third of those students said it happened by text, email or on Facebook, according to the American Association of University Women. Girls, again, reported higher levels of victimization.
Sexual harassment, on the streets and online, tends to hit girls and women more than boys and men, said Holly Kearl, founder of Stop Street Harassment, who co-authored the AAUW study. A girl is more likely than a boy to be judged for her body, clothing and sexual experience.
These days, thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones, she can encounter abuse at any moment in the palm of her hand.
“Kids are mimicking what they’re exposed to, what they see as acceptable,” Kearl said. “It’s in TV; it’s in music videos — everywhere.”
A study published this month in the journal Cogent Social Sciences found young men in Belfast were more likely to experience bullying in the real world, while young women reported higher levels of bullying on the Internet.
Kearl's team, meanwhile, learned that girls reported more overall emotional anguish from the taunting than boys. Of the students who reported harassment, 32 percent of girls said they didn’t want to go to school as a result, compared to 25 percent of boys. Thirty-four percent of girls reported having a harder time studying, while 24 percent of boys said the same.
Bullying, of course, is an ancient menace, and the Internet, with all its identity-shielding power, has opened an easy portal for perpetrators. The best defense in a digital world, Kearl said, is honest dialogue.
"The number one thing is to acknowledge this is happening at a young age," she said. "Parents don't want to think about their kids experiencing or perpetrating sexual harassment. A lot of people who could have an impact are just ignoring it."