Browse all articles

Help Kids Fight Cyberbullying and Online Harassment

Though someone's mean online behavior might not fit the definition, it can still hurt.

Topics: Cyberbullying

A student sees a group of classmates coming toward them in the hallway. One has been their best friend since second grade, but the student doesn't know the others very well. They say hi as the kids pass. They all ignore the student or roll their eyes, including the friend. A few lockers down, they whisper to each other while they stare and laugh behind their hands.

We can all agree the classmates in this situation are being mean. Can we call this bullying?

These "IRL" (in real life) scenarios can happen all the time, and they often carry over into the online world. In fact, most kids will come across cyberbullying, online harassment, or mean online behavior.

The best remedy for all these issues is prevention and education. Teaching kids what it means to be kind and respectful and a responsible digital citizen can nip lots of trouble in the bud. But when and if problems start, it's good for parents and caregivers to understand what's happening—and how to help.

So what are some types of mean behavior that kids can face online?

Ghosting. When people cut off online contact and stop responding, they might be ghosting. Refusing to answer someone's messages can actually be a way of communicating a shift or upheaval among a group of friends. Often, instead of ever addressing the issue head-on, people will just ignore the targeted person.

  • How to handle it. Being ignored is tough. Try to empathize and validate your kid's feelings. If they're willing, encourage them to try a private conversation with the person ghosting them, with your guidance. If that feels too hard, suggest your kid stop trying to get replies. The person ghosting may come around, but if not, your kid is free to move on.

Subtweeting. When you tweet or post something about a specific person but don't mention them by name or tag them. Subtweets can be critical or downright mean. Since the target isn't tagged or even named in most cases, they might not know it's happening until someone clues them in. Vague subtweets can also be misinterpreted—it might not actually be about you!

  • How to handle it. If your kid finds out someone is subtweeting them, they have a few options, depending on the person doing it. If it's a friend, it's a good idea to address it directly with them. If it's someone they don't know well or have a conflict with, it's best to ignore it. Engaging in a Twitter war (or conflict on any other platform) usually escalates the problem.

Fake accounts. Sometimes kids will create fake accounts in someone else's name to hurt that person. In most cases, it's hard to trace who created the account, and even if it's shut down, the person can just create another one.

  • How to handle it. Dealing with fake accounts can feel like a game of whack-a-mole. But a kid who's targeted should try to defend themselves by blocking and reporting it. Kids could also let friends know what's happening to set the record straight.

Sharing embarrassing posts and pics. Taking selfies and group pics are a normal part of preteen and teen life. But sometimes kids take pictures of each other that are potentially embarrassing if widely shared or cruelly captioned. Often this is done by someone who thinks they're being funny or assumes everyone will get the joke. But these compromising posts can make the rounds in a hot minute. So no matter the intentions, it can make the kid who's being targeted feel hurt.

  • How to handle it. It's best if kids get in the habit of asking each other for permission to share photos. But that won't always happen. Remind your kids to think about the impact the photo will have on others before they post it. Kids can also ask their friends to take down pictures shared without their permission as soon as they know they're public. If the post has already made the rounds, they may not be able to chase down every copy. But you can reassure kids that everyone will likely move on to the next piece of news and forget about it soon.

Rumors. Social media is a perfect venue for the rumor mill, so lies can go far and wide before the target even knows what's happening. And once the fake news is out there, it's pretty impossible to reel it back in.

  • How to handle it. Your kid's response depends on the type of rumor. If it's something that involves other people or contains threats, you may need to get the school involved. If the rumor is embarrassing or hurtful but isn't likely to cause a fight, it's fine for your kid to post a response. Coach them to respond just once and ignore the comments. Otherwise, they can refute the rumor in person when it comes up and wait for everyone to move on.

Exclusion. A kid may be scrolling through their feed and stop cold at a picture of all their friends together—without them. Usually, these aren't intentional. But sometimes they are. If this becomes a regular pattern, where classmates post photos or videos of exclusive get-togethers, it might be an opportunity for your child to reach out and find out where they stand.

  • How to handle it. Responding online probably won't get the best results. Encourage your kid to approach the original poster privately and explain that the photos hurt their feelings. It's best if your kid can use "I" statements, like "I felt really hurt when I saw that picture…" (not "I think you're a jerk"). Help your child express their emotions and navigate their friendship with the people who they feel excluded by.

Griefing. There are people who harass or irritate you in multiplayer games. They kill your character on purpose, steal your game loot, and harass you in chat. Repeated behavior like that is called "griefing." If your kid plays multiplayer games with chat, they're bound to run into it at some point.

  • How to handle it. Before your kid starts playing a game with strangers, make sure they know how to report and block players who are being cruel on purpose. Tell your kid not to get into an argument over chat, since it probably won't resolve anything and could escalate the aggression. Certain games tend to have more toxic behavior than others, so encourage your kid to try a different game where the community is safer and supportive.

Hate speech. Sadly, teens are likely to come across hate speech online. This kind of language is similar to cyberbullying, but it's targeted to hurt someone based on personal traits such as race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Even if your kid isn't directly mentioned in the posts or comments, they may feel the impact if they're a part of the targeted group.

  • How to handle it. If your kid sees hate speech online, teach them to reach out to a friend or trusted adult for support. Check in with your kid about the kinds of attitudes they see online. If they're seeing a lot of hurtful language, encourage them to seek out alternative games, servers, or feeds—especially ones with supportive communities. If your kid knows the person who used hate speech—such as another student at school—consider getting the school involved.
Christine Elgersma
Christine Elgersma is the editor for learning app reviews as Senior Editor, Learning Content. Before coming to Common Sense, she helped cultivate and create ELA curriculum for a K-12 app and taught the youth of America as a high school teacher, a community college teacher, a tutor, and a special education instructional aide. Christine is also a writer, primarily of fiction and essays, and loves to read all manner of books. When she's not putting on a spontaneous vaudeville show with her daughter, Christine loves to hike and listen to music, sometimes simultaneously.