While we might be familiar with some of the more shocking stories or statistics about cyberbullying, psychologists are quick to remind that sometimes this form of torment can be more insidious. Depending on how outward you are to defend someone who is being subjected to this unwarranted anguish, or how serious you take rumors that often spread rapidly in social settings, you could be inadvertently contributing to cyberbullying. As a way to gut-check yourself and audit your online or mobile actions (or inactions), experts point to a few ways you may be part of cyberbullying culture without realizing it. And more importantly — what to do about it:
You make jokes at someone else’s expense.
When you think of the banter you share with your best friend or possibly even your sibling or romantic partner, it’s part of your relationship to tease each other a bit. This is likely a joke made with an undertone of love, though, and one that you can easily shake off with a hug or a shared I’m-just-kidding glance. But because you can’t read between those two blue lines on an iPhone to understand the tone behind a statement, that same mockery may be taken completely differently. “Your intention may be harmless, but the person on the receiving end may be hit hard by your words or message,” O’Leary says. To avoid this, she suggests keeping any type of joke for face-to-face exchanges, making it unquestionably clear that you’re pestering out of kindness, not out of cruelty.
You’re part of a group chat that includes bashing someone.
While your older sister or uncle might talk about how much three-way calling changed the game when they were your age, these days, there’s a whole new realm of talking to multiple friends at once: the group chat, which happens as fast as your thumbs can type. While group texts can be beneficial for making weekend plans, catching up on the latest celeb gossip, or getting into a GIF war, they can also be a breeding ground for cyberbullying when the conversation turns from light-hearted and playful to pointed. “Next thing you know, the conversation has devolved into a ‘mean girls’ chat [and] you’re falling down the rabbit hole of cyberbullying,” O’Leary explains. “It’s a slippery slope, especially if your friends are venting about people you aren’t fond of or have an issue with.”
You might be tempted to chime in with a witty one-liner that’ll make them LOL, but instead of joining in, this is where O’Leary says it’s better to stay true to your values by setting a clear boundary, encouraging your friends to cut out the unnecessary hearsay.
You don’t call your friend out.
If you think about it for a hot second, you can name that one gossipy friend in your life. They might be brazen enough to take to social media to show off their bravado, even at someone else’s expense. “If your friend is mocking someone’s Instagram post or making passive-aggressive comments online, turning a blind eye is certainly easy,” O’Leary says. “However, it sends the message that you condone their actions and this perpetuates the culture of insidious cyberbullying.”
You might struggle with stepping in, but the simple move could change the tune of a friend who doesn’t think twice about hurting someone. O’Leary recommends being direct with your response as a way to diffuse possible conflict. Saying, “That’s not OK” or “Why are you saying that?” can be powerful. “You may get an eye-roll or some push-back, but your friend will probably think about your comment and hopefully that self-reflection will lead to wiser choices in the future,” she adds.
You blow someone off when they reach out to you.
When you’re upset by something but you’re worried that you’re exaggerating, you might have anxiety about reaching out to someone for a second opinion. So when a friend or an acquaintance confides in you about a cyberbullying incident and you brush them off? O’Leary says that act of courage could have been a turning point that you dismissed. That’s why you should take a pause before telling that person it’s not that bad, or that they’re overreacting, and instead, make an effort to be silent while they explain. “Choosing to listen without judgement and offer support is powerful and may even increase your awareness of just how hurtful social media and online commentary can be,” O’Leary says.
You hide behind a fake account.
Sure, you might have an alter ego that you choose to hide behind when you want to contribute comments to an article without it showing up as a Google alert for your name. While O’Leary says there is a time and a space for anonymity, when you use the pseudonym to harm someone else, you’ve taken it too far. “The impact of your comments and posts don’t necessarily sting because you said them, they sting because they’re said at all,” she says. Instead of lingering in the interwebs without showing your face, O’Leary suggests cutting yourself off cold-turkey for a week, taking time to truly digest and amend your actions. “Hold yourself accountable to stay in the bully-free zone by not making comments about others that you would not share under your true identity,” she says.