Smartphones have become an essential tool for people of all ages, but they also pose serious challenges for parents and teachers trying to protect children from online abuse.

The July suicide of a high school girl in Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture, serves as an example of how cyberbullying can take root among children in a closed online community.

According to media reports, the girl left a suicide note detailing brutal messages she had received from classmates via the popular messaging app Line. Nevertheless, the school announced in December it had determined that the bullying was not the direct cause of her suicide.

What is cyberbullying?

Basically it’s bullying over the Internet, which experts say is on the rise and often accompanies — or even triggers — other forms of bullying. A law against bullying was enacted in June 2013 stipulating that any physical or psychological assault, regardless of location, means or occasion, constitutes bullying if the targeted victim suffers psychological distress.

The law was established in response to a bullying case that, when it was ultimately revealed, drew a great deal of attention. The case centered around the 2011 suicide of a junior high school boy in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, who had been the victim of severe harassment. The suicide got little initial mention but later became a scandal when the city and school denied bullying had taken place and then later reversed themselves.

Given the enormous social impact of the case, the education ministry in June 2013 issued a guideline calling for schools, municipalities and parents to commit fully to preventing any form of bullying.

The 2013 law clearly included cyberbullying among its definitions of bullying.

What has been happening since then?

Recent reports of cyberbullying have involved children’s use of social networking apps on smartphones.

One notable case involved a male junior high school student in Fukuoka Prefecture who was beaten by classmates last March reportedly because he was not committed enough to an extracurricular activity in which he was participating. Four classmates made a video of themselves punching and kicking the boy that they later shared with others via Line.

In another case, a first-year high school girl in Tokyo became the target of relentless attacks on Line last May after she warned other students to stop using their smartphones during class. The bullying prompted her to stop going to school.

Some cyberbullying cases are more subtle.

A female third-year junior high student in Tokyo became the target of neglect on social media. When she joined a conversation group on Line, other students in the group immediately changed the topic and even created another group to exclude her.

A third-year junior high school girl in Aichi Prefecture was bullied after she didn’t immediately respond to a message from a friend sent via a messaging app that leaves a record if it’s been read by the recipient. Not replying to a message after reading it is often considered impolite behavior known as “kidoku suru” (ignoring messages despite having read them).

Are cyberbullying cases increasing in Japan?

Yes. Slowly perhaps, but surely.

In 2013, elementary, junior high and high schools, as well as schools for students with special needs, reported a combined record 8,787 cases of bullying that involved the use of computers or cellphones.

Cyberbullying made up 4.7 percent of all 185,860 bullying cases reported, according to the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry. The number was about 12 percent up from the previous year’s 7,855, which amounted to 4 percent of the 198,108 total.

Cyberbullying tends to be more prominent in higher grades.

In 2013, 1.4 percent of all bullying cases in elementary schools involved cyberbullying, compared with 19.7 percent of the total in high schools.

However, one expert said these numbers don’t reflect the reality because only cases reported and admitted by schools are counted.

“The problem is that the cases of cyberbullying are hard for adults to recognize,” said Masashi Yasukawa, director of the National Web Counseling Council, which offers support for victims of cyberbullying.

Children artfully avoid adults’ eyes by using online slang, thus keeping their online private group from showing up on Internet search results, or by making the group password-protected so adults or even police can’t gain access. Japan’s laws prohibit password breaking, he said.

In addition, Yasukawa said schools tend to hesitate to report cyberbullying because most of the harassment occurs outside of class.

How does cyberbullying differ from other forms of bullying?

Cyberbullying can often result in serious, prolonged consequences.

Yasukawa said victims of such abuse often suffer from more severe psychological damage than those victimized by traditional bullying because many abusive online messages remain on social media almost permanently.

Unlike traditional bullying, cyberbullying can continue over a school break or even after a victim stops going to school because it doesn’t require physical, face-to-face interaction.

Why does cyberbullying often spiral out of control?

Hiroko Kanoh, an associate professor of IT education at Yamagata University, released research in May 2011 indicating that certain characteristics of online communications may explain why cyberbullying often escalates.

First, because online exchanges are often anonymous, it’s easier for anyone to participate in bullying. With their identity protected, culprits often resort to cruel slanders they would rarely say in the real world.

Second, unlike face-to-face bullying, in which victims might have a chance to rebut or silence their tormentors, those who are cyberbullied have a hard time fighting back and the slurs against them can snowball.

Online bullying also offers “participatory entertainment” for bullies, Kanoh said. Bullying someone in front of potential spectators online fulfills a desire for attention, and spectators can easily become bullies if they get caught up in the momentum.

Are there countermeasures?

Yes, but they aren’t always effective. The best countermeasure would be parents instilling a greater sense of compassion in their children, and having those concepts take hold, Yasukawa said.

Ideally, teachers should also lecture students on how to avoid cyberbullying. But educators themselves are not sure what forms bullying takes online, he said.

Major mobile phone carriers provide free workshops at the request of schools to teach students, teachers and parents how to avoid trouble by analyzing past cases.

But Yasukawa said such workshops may end up triggering more bullying.

“These workshops actually (show) students how to bully (by discussing past cases),” he said, adding that he usually receives more inquiries from concerned parties after such workshops.

Carrier-sponsored workshops are also problematic because they are geared toward instilling in children a desire to have their own phone, and because they would never teach topics that may hinder sales, he said.

What is really needed is basic education at home to raise children’s compassion for others, Yasukawa said, lamenting, however, that such education won’t be nurtured if parents let their kids play video games during dinner or talk with friends on messaging apps until late at night.

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