By Barbara Mahany

(MCT)

Digital puberty: It might not be in the dictionary yet, but its effects are being discussed by teachers, social psychologists and cultural anthropologists plotting out the pitfalls, mapping the maneuvering, of this bold new world where teens grow up — and strive and stumble.

It's all being played out on a digital stage these days. It's this cyberhangout — always on, ever-connected, texting and instant messaging, plugged into one social network or another — where teens and preteens now gossip and flirt. It's where they break up and make up. Post pictures of where they all hung out the night before.

Only, without the face-to-face encounter, a vital check for bad behavior is stripped from the equation. And that, say the experts, might be a crucial difference.

Never in the history of social maneuvering have walls between public and private been so permeable. Nor, given the impulsiveness of teens and the exponential powers of cyberspace, have the risks of emotional and social fallout been so potentially damning.

Compounding it all, the kids are leading the digital way.

Two or three years ago, Internet safety meant slapping on filters to keep kids from prowling for porn, and to keep pedophiles from prowling for kids.

That hardly begins to fill in what experts now say is the critical void: Teens, for the most part, have been left to their own devices to navigate this new social milieu, to emerge intact from what Honeycutt refers to as "digital puberty."

In so many ways, the cyberhangout is a social landscape built for teens. Indeed, it's mostly unpatrolled by adults.

And when it goes bad, it can go very bad.

It would be five days before the page finally came down — police and school officials claimed that without an explicit physical threat they had no recourse — but by then, says the girl's mother, the damage was done. Her daughter, now in college, was devastated.

And two months later she found out the fake page was created by one of her best friends, the confidant on whose shoulder she had sobbed for weeks.

"You wake up one morning, and the entire county suddenly knows your most intimate shameful secret," says the mother of the 17-year-old, who had found out she was pregnant the day before the page appeared and had scheduled an abortion.

The most reliable national statistics suggest about one in three teens, and one in six preteens, have been victims of so-called "cyberbullying." Another national survey shows, though, that only a third of those who've been cyberbullied told their parents about it, and another third never told anyone.

Unless social order and civility are coded into the program, she warns, the backlash is this: kids afraid to go to school, kids who can't focus, kids in a constant adrenalized state, kids who don't know who their friends are or who really sent a gut-wrenching message. "It all just dumbs you down," Wiseman says.

"If you're walking through the halls and you pull out your cell phone to take a picture of a girl because you want to see if she's wearing underwear, and then you send it around to all of your friends, that's not funny. You're disregarding someone's right to exist without being used as a tool for your sense of power.

"If you want to check and see whether you're a decent human being, go look at your text messages for the last two weeks. Do you see these words?" she asks, then reels off a list that begins with "slut" and "whore" and ends with words much more vulgar.

"There are few clear things in life," Wiseman says, "Here's one: You treat people with dignity."

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Rules to txt by

Don't give out your password, not even to your best friend, or your boyfriend or girlfriend. Some of the nastiest scenarios unfold after a romantic breakup.

Don't send pictures you wouldn't want posted on the high school wall. And don't forward one either.

It's a cop-out to say you're just passing it along.

If someone sends a nasty e-mail, don't fire back. You might want to go ahead and write it, but don't send it. You're adding fuel to a fire.

Pick up the phone and talk about it, one to one. Before you send a message, ask yourself: Would I say this to someone's face?

If you feel cyber-bullied, save the evidence. And don't be sure you know who sent it; it's easy these days to hide the real cyber-trail (which is why you should never give anyone your password).