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What to do When Your Teen Cyberbullies Others

Justin W. Patchin and Sameer Hinduja

What should you do if you find out that your teen has bullied others online? In many ways, this scenario can be more challenging than if your teen is the target. It can be difficult to acknowledge that your teen might have said or done something hurtful to another, but keep an open mind. As a parent or caregiver, accept the reality that any teen might make bad choices given certain circumstances, despite your best efforts to teach them otherwise. At the outset, parents and caregivers need to approach this problem like any other: with a calm and clear head. If you are angry (which you most likely will be at first), take a deep breath and revisit the issue when you have calmed down a bit. How you respond to the current situation will set the stage for how your teens will communicate with you in the future.

Find Out What Happened

First, it is important that you understand exactly what happened. Who was targeted? Was there anyone else involved, either as a target, witness, or aggressor? How long has this been going on? Is there a history of problematic interactions to know about? What was the motivation or genesis of the harmful action(s)? Try to learn as much as you can about what occurred. Talk to your teen. Get their full side of the story. Hopefully they will be open and forthcoming, but often they will not. This is why it is important to investigate the situation on your own. Many youth engage in cyberbullying to exact revenge for something someone else did first. Make sure that your teen knows that they can come to you and discuss any issues they are having with their peers. Hopefully this can interrupt the festering of possible conflicts before they reach a boiling point.

Stop the Bullying

The primary purpose of your response is to stop the bullying from happening (currently and in the future). Of course, it can be challenging to know how best to accomplish this goal, especially with your own teen. For relatively minor first-time misbehaviors, a simple conversation about behavioral expectations may be all that is necessary to get your teen back on track behaviorally. Explain the severity of cyberbullying and the potential impact it can have on someone else. Convey the realities of the various types of harm that can befall targets – even if your teen felt like it was harmless or a joking matter.

Tips to Stop Your Teen from Cyberbullying

  • Find out what happened and why
  • Ensure they understand the harm
  • Apply logical consequences
  • Supervise their online activities

Impose Logical Consequences

As adults, we have come to know that there are consequences for every behavior – both positive and negative. A natural consequence is something that naturally or automatically occurs as a result of a behavior (without human intervention). If someone puts their hand on a hot stove burner, for example, they will get burned. There are some natural consequences, however, that are simply too great a risk. For example, a teen who drives drunk may get in an accident and end up killing himself or someone else. For these kinds of behaviors, it is better to preempt the natural consequence by utilizing a logical consequence – one that is directly related to the potential risk involved. We don’t want our teens to drink and drive, and so if they exhibit risky behaviors associated with alcohol then we might need to take the car away for a while or have them visit car accident victims in the hospital. For maximum effect, the consequence should occur as soon as possible after the behavior (since natural consequences are often immediate). It is essential that your teen is able to clearly link the punishment to the behavior. The same approach can be used when disciplining our teens for inappropriate online actions. If they are making hurtful comments about others on social media, maybe they need to take a break from technology for a few days. If they are sending nasty texts, then they could lose their phone privileges for a while. Be sure to explain why the behaviors are inappropriate and demonstrate what some of the natural consequences could be (harm to the target, damaged online reputation, school suspension or expulsion, juvenile record, etc.).

In general, parents need to carefully think through their response to cyberbullying – especially when their teen is the aggressor. Nobody wants the behavior to continue, so specific steps need to be taken. Every teen and incident is different, and so it is important to learn as much as you can about what happened so you can respond in a thoughtful way.