Put a bunch of teenage girls in a room with computers and cell phones and tell them to work for two days to become the most popular, and you'll see some pretty ruthless strategy.

That's what Brigham Young University researcher David Nelson says he found in a project with ABC's "Primetime." Nelson, an assistant professor of human development in the School of Family Life, along with professors Clyde Robinson and Craig Hart, are scheduled to appear on "Primetime" with Diane Sawyer at 9 tonight on KTVX Channel 4, BYU announced.

The BYU trio's research on "mean girls," or a phenomenon of relational aggression starting as young as preschool age, attracted national attention last year.

The "Primetime" segment focuses on the rising trend of cyber-bullying, or using text messaging, the Internet and other means to spread rumors, or worse.

"Cyber methods are taking aggression to all new heights," Nelson said. "There are so many ways they can use technology to hurt others, the possibilities are endless."

The BYU trio has examined relational aggression, or using relationships as a vehicle for harm, including exclusion and silent treatments, Nelson said. The behavior had been studied in older children, but they found it started as young as 4 years old.

Their work was published in the journal Early Education and Development, BYU reports.

The researchers now are doing follow-up work with a Russian group to see if "mean girls" remain that way in adolescence.

Meanwhile, after media coverage of the group's research last year, at a time when movies like "Mean Girls" and the book "Queen Bees and Wannabes" piqued public interest, "Primetime" called the BYU researchers, Nelson said. The trio helped with an experiment for the "Primetime" segment.

Teenage girls in Atlanta were put into three teams of three, in rooms packed with technology, including a myspace.com Web site, cell phones, instant messaging, video and camera phone capabilities, Nelson said. Their task: Compete to be picked for inclusion in a popular team of college- and high-school age young men and women.

The scenario was one of role-play, Nelson said. Still, he says, it showed how teens use technology to get a one-up on the social ladder.

Some teams started out positively, but others portrayed other teams negatively with instant messages, made-up rumors and other aggressive tactics, he said.

"As time went on, it got crazier and crazier; the dialogue got more interesting and more aggressive," Nelson said.

Later, the girls were pulled together and asked what they learned, Nelson said. Most said they never thought how damaging their comments might be, that it was hard to discern sarcasm from seriousness in text, and that once they hit the send button, those words are out there, forever, and they can't take it back.

"The most interesting thing about cyber-bullying, it enables this aggressive behavior (perhaps more) than any other tool at adolescents' disposal," Nelson said. "It's a lot easier to be negative when you're anonymous."

Cyber-bullying has caught the attention of law enforcement officials across the country. Last month, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and others representing the group "Fight Crime: Invest in Kids" at the National Press Club offered tips to combat cyber-bullying and called on Congress to act on an anti-bullying bill. They also unveiled a national poll showing one-third of teens and one-sixth of younger children have been victims of cyber-bullying.

Nelson believes making parents and teachers aware of cyber-bullying can help stem the problem.

"Hopefully, this segment will demonstrate, we need some etiquette" in technology correspondence, Nelson said. "We hope as we better understand these things, we'll develop better interventions for stopping it. We've got to identify it as early as preschool and try and nip it in the bud at that point."


E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com