Schoolchildren as young as 10 are using internet sites to bully and harass their classmates.
Intermediate schools say pupils are using social networking website Bebo to create a false profile and post offensive information about their peers.
Waikowhai Intermediate School deputy principal Liz Wood noticed an increase in online bullying in the school holidays.
"It’s like underage drinking, it’s misuse of a tool," she says.
"In the wrong hands it can be extremely hurtful and emotionally harmful."
She says the problem happens outside of school but the effects spill over on to the playground.
Users signing up to Bebo need to be at least 13 years old but some children are using false birth dates to become a member.
They’re not required to provide proof of age or identity.
Ms Wood says the lack of security puts children at the mercy of bullies.
"The perpetrator ends up saying things that the victim would never normally say, and issues arise from there," she says.
Mt Roskill Intermediate School principal Mike O’Reilly says a few cases of online bullying have come to his attention.
He says the school is concerned about gossip and rumours in any situation.
"But this can also happen on text messaging," he says.
"It’s just another avenue for it to happen and I don’t think it is special."
Kowhai Intermediate School principal Paul Douglas agrees harassment online is no different to bullying in person.
"We try to teach our children to be as wise as snakes and as harmless as doves."
Pasadena Intermediate School principal Tony Walsh says he’s keeping an eye on the situation.
"It’s an issue of society as well as schools and something that needs to be managed by both us and the parents," he says.
"Banning something tends to make it more attractive so it’s something we’re just going to have to work out."
The online bullying problem may also be spreading to primary schools.
Edendale School’s latest newsletter warns parents to be aware of children using Bebo after occurrences of bullying in the school holidays.
Children were also putting themselves at risk by pretending to be older than they are and putting their full names online.
Internet safety group Netsafe’s research manager John Fenaughty says only a small percentage of students use Bebo for bullying.
"If bullying happens in cyberspace it’s an issue for the school because it creates a negative environment," he says.
"But the solution is about education not restriction, as students can always use the internet at a cafe or library if not at home or school."
Mr Fenaughty advises parents to closely monitor how often their children are on the internet and which sites they visit.
Any student who is being bullied online can contact Netsafe for help.
Phone 0508-638-723 or visit their Bebo page at www.bebo.com/netsafe.
- Central Leader
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