PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Ryan Patrick Halligan was bullied for months online. Classmates sent the 13-year-old Essex Junction, Vt., boy instant messages calling him gay. He was threatened, taunted and insulted incessantly by so-called cyberbullies.
Finally, in 2003, Ryan killed himself. His father says he couldn't take it anymore.
"He just went into a deep spiral in 8th grade. He couldn't shake this rumor," John Halligan said.
Ryan's death is an extreme example of what can go wrong when children take their bullying online — to social Web sites like MySpace or Facebook, or to instant messages. The Internet allows students to insult others in relative anonymity, and experts who study the phenomenon say cyberbullying can be more damaging to the victim than traditional bullying like fist fights and classroom taunts.
Now, several states are considering crackdowns to curb or outlaw the behavior. South Carolina has already passed a law that allows schools to punish cyberbullying and Rhode Island, Oregon, Arkansas and New Jersey are mulling such policies. While there is some disagreement over how effective crackdowns will be and how to implement them and whether they might violate free speech, legislators who support cyberbullying laws say it's important to take action.
"The kids are forcing our hands to do something legislatively," said Rhode Island state Sen. John Tassoni, who introduced a bill to study cyberbullying and hopes to pass a cyberbullying law by late this year.
Cyberbullying is often limited to online insults about someone's physical appearance, friends, clothing or sexuality. But Internet bullies can also get creative, building Web sites that disparage other students or starting polls to rank the "Top 10 ugliest people in the school."
In Washington state, a bully stole a girl's instant message name and used it to send out insulting messages. In New York, two high school boys were accused of operating an Internet site that listed girls' "sexual secrets."
Experts say cyberbullying victims feel trapped and often don't tell parents or teachers. They also have a tough time finding a place to get away.
"You need a time where you can pull into yourself and make sense of all the stuff you've been told," said Tony Jurich, a professor of marriage and family therapy at Kansas State University who has studied cyberbullying and worked with cyberbullying victims. "But if your computer is in your room, it's contaminated and (your room) is no longer a safe place."
No one tracks incidents of cyberbullying. But a 2004 survey by iSafe, a Carlsbad, Calif., nonprofit that works with schools and other organizations to improve Internet safety, found that 42% of children reported being bullied online.
The survey, based on responses from 1,500 students in 4th through 8th grades, found 35% of children surveyed have been threatened online and 58% admit someone said hurtful things to them online.
States are taking different approaches to the problem.
A South Carolina law that took effect this year requires school districts to define bullying and outline policies and repercussions for the behavior, including cyberbullying. One school district there has proposed punishments from warnings up to expulsion.
In Arkansas, the state Senate this month passed a bill calling on school districts to set up policies to address cyberbullying. The bill passed after it was amended to address concerns about students' free-speech rights and has been sent back to a House committee.
According to the First Amendment Center report "Student Online Expression: What Do the Internet and MySpace Mean for Students' First Amendment Rights?" by David L. Hudson Jr., it’s an unsettled question whether courts might permit punishment of students who write derogatory comments about other students from off-campus computers and other devices.
Some of Oregon's most powerful lawmakers have lined up behind a proposed bill that would require all of the state's 198 school districts to adopt policies that prohibit cyberbullying. Some local school districts aren't waiting for the state to take action: The Sisters school district in central Oregon adopted rules that allow it to revoke school Internet privileges from cyberbullies, or even expel a student in egregious cases.
George McDonough, an education coordinator with Rhode Island's Department of Education, concedes that the Internet has become an "instant slam book" but said he questions whether laws can stem bad behavior.
"You can't legislate norms, you can only teach norms," he said. "Just because it's a law they don't necessarily follow it. I mean, look at the speed limit."
Beatbullying, an advocacy group based in England, said the most effective deterrent would be to hold Internet companies responsible for bullying material placed on their sites.
The group says Web sites should be forced to keep bullying material as evidence instead of deleting it when they receive a complaint. Bullies should also be reminded that "everything they do online leaves a digital fingerprint of where they were and what they did," Emma-Jane Cross, the organization's chief executive, said via e-mail.
The United Kingdom plans to publish school guidelines for bullying by the end of this year, Cross said.
Since his son's suicide, John Halligan has begun visiting schools to tell Ryan's story. He's also become an advocate for cyberbullying laws that would allow victims and their families to pursue civil penalties against bullies and mandate bullying education in schools.
He and said something must be done to stop the problem.
"I didn't simply want it to be Ryan's school that agreed to do something," he said. "At the end of the day this wasn't just a problem in Ryan's school."