Dealing with Cyberbullies: What Works and What Doesn't
It’s impossible to change behavior when no one understands what is behind it. Cyberbullying occurs for the same reasons schoolyard bullying occurs. It also occurs by accident when students are careless about cyber communications. It might come from impulsive and thoughtless reactions to something that has upset the “cyberbully.” They may be defending themselves and each other from offline bullies or other cyberbullies. Lumping them all together will lead nowhere, fast.
Every Type of Cyberbullying Requires a Different Response and Method of Prevention
There are four different kinds of cyberbullying (and one sub-type). They are motive-driven, based on the motives for the cyberbullying. They may use the same methods as the other kinds of cyberbullies, but the reasons for their actions are very different. Solutions require that we understand the motives involved to address them effectively.
The four types of cyberbullies include:
- The "Vengeful Angel";
- The "Power-Hungry" (or "Revenge of the Nerds" sub-type);
- The “Mean Girls”; and
- The "Inadvertent Cyberbully."
Some methods of cyberbullying are unique to a certain kind of cyberbullying and so are the ways the cyberbullies maintain their anonymity or broadcast their actions to others. Some are secretive, some require an audience, and some are entirely inadvertent.
Because the motives differ for each type of cyberbully, the solutions need to address their special issues. There is no “one size fits all” where cyberbullying is concerned. Understanding more about why they cyberbully others will help. You have to address the motives. That’s why awareness campaigns need several different messages to address the problem.
“The Vengeful Angel”
In this type of cyberbullying, the cyberbully doesn’t see themselves as a bully at all. They see themselves as righting wrongs, or protecting themselves or others from the “bad guy” they are now victimizing. They believe they are the Robin Hoods of cyberspace.
They are not a victim of cyberbullying, but step in to protect others. They may be the target of offline bullying, however, and that is one of the motives for their protecting others in cyberspace. (When a victim of cyberbullying retaliates and becomes a cyberbully themselves, they are “Inadvertent Cyberbullies,” not Vengeful Angels.)
Vengeful Angels may be angry at something the cyberbully (or offline bully) did and feel they are taking warranted revenge or teaching the other a lesson. The Vengeful Angel cyberbully often gets involved trying to protect a friend who is being bullied or cyberbullied.
They generally work alone, but may share their activities and motives with their close friends and others they perceive as being victimized by the person they are cyberbullying. They need to maintain their anonymity, as they would be physically at risk from the offline bully they are trying to neutralize by their online vigilante actions.
Almost always, a Vengeful Angel takes matters into their own hands because the system isn’t working. When Vengeful Angel attacks occur, the school should look at how they are addressing offline bullying and cyberbullying. If there are alternatives to having to step in and take action on their own, the students who fit this profile would prefer to leave things in the hands of the professionals. To learn more about diagnosing a cyberbullying incident or campaign and determining the type of cyberbully behind the actions and the right method of addressing that kind of attack, review “What Can You Do to Address it?”
Dealing with the Vengeful Angel Cyberbully
Vengeful Angels need to know that no one should try and take justice into their own hands. They need to understand that few things are clear enough to understand, and that fighting bullying with more bullying only makes things worse. They need to see themselves as bullies, not the do-gooder they think they are.
It also helps to address the reasons they lashed out in the first place. If they sense injustices, maybe there really are injustices. Instead of just blaming the Vengeful Angel, solutions here also require that the situation be reviewed to see what can be done to address the underlying problem. Is there a place to report bullying or cyberbullying? Can that be done anonymously? Is there a peer counseling group that handles these matters? What about parents and school administrators. Do they ignore bullying when it occurs, or do they take it seriously? The more methods using official channels to right wrongs that we can give these kinds of cyberbullies, the less often they will try to take justice into their own hands.
The “Power-Hungry” and “Revenge of the Nerds” (a sub-type of Power-Hungry cyberbullies)
Just as do their schoolyard counterparts, some cyberbullies want to exert their authority, show that they are powerful enough to make others do what they want, or control others with fear. Sometimes the student wants to hurt another student. Sometimes they just don’t like the other student, are just seeking a reaction, or are just targeting the next person to log on (the classic wrong place at the wrong time scenario). They are looking for attention and want to see their target(s) sweat.
These are no different than offline tough schoolyard bullies, except for their use of technology. And, in most cases, they are the schoolyard thugs that use offline intimidation and their fists to hurt and control others.
Power-Hungry cyberbullies usually don’t need an audience. If they do, it may only be a small audience of their friends or those within their circle at school. Sometimes, however, the power they feel when cyberbullying someone is not enough to feed their need to be seen as powerful and intimidating. Then they will brag about their actions. The only version of a Power-Hungry cyberbully that broadcasts his actions, though, is typically one who is also an offline bully, big and physically tough enough to intimidate others in real life.
Note that a Power-Hungry cyberbully wants a reaction from their victim, and without one, may escalate their activities to get one. Insults may become threats if they think they are being “disrespected.”
A Power-Hungry cyberbully's weapon of choice is a direct attack or threat sent to their victims or communicated in a game, hacking attacks, or public posting. They do not typically resort to cyberbashing websites, posing, or public postings designed to humiliate their victims. They are far too impatient to await the help of bystanders. They act quickly, decisively, and attempt to instill fear in their victims.
Interestingly enough, though, a certain sub-type profile of the “Power-Hungry” cyberbully is often the victim of typical offline bullying. They may be female or physically smaller, the ones picked on for not being popular enough or cool enough (the “girls and the geeks”). They may have greater technical skills, as well. These are called the “Revenge of the Nerds” sub-type of Power-Hungry cyberbullies.
It is their intention to frighten or embarrass their victims in the same way as their beefier Power-Hungry cyberbully counterparts. They are empowered by the anonymity of the Internet and digital communications and the fact that they never have to confront their victim in real life and risk being physically hurt. They may act tough online, but are not tough in real life. They are often not a bully, but “just playing one on TV.” The “Revenge of the Nerds” cyberbully subtype, unlike their thuggy counterparts, will never let anyone outside of their circle know who they are. They are not big or tough enough to protect themselves offline from physical retaliation in real life and guard their identity carefully.
This kind of Revenge of the Nerds cyberbullying usually takes place one-on-one and is often kept secret even from their friends. If they share their actions with others, they are doing it only with others they feel would be sympathetic in a small, closed circle. They rarely appreciate the seriousness of their actions, and often resort to cyberbullying –by proxy. Because of this and their technology skills, Revenge of the Nerds can be the most dangerous of all cyberbullying.
Dealing with Power Hungry and Revenge of the Nerds Cyberbullies
Power-Hungry cyberbullies often react best when they know that few things are ever anonymous online. We leave a trail of cyber breadcrumbs behind us wherever we go in cyberspace. And, with the assistance of law enforcement or a legal subpoena, we can almost always find the cyberabusers and cybercriminals in real life. Shining a bright light on their activities helps, too. When they are exposed, letting the school community know about their exposure helps prevent copycat cyberbullying.
Helping them to realize the magnitude of their activities is also helpful with a Revenge of the Nerds type. Often their activities rise to the criminal level. The more this type of cyberbully understands the legal consequences of their actions, the more they think about their actions.
Ignoring all types of Power-Hungry cyberbullies is often the most effective method of stopping it. They want a reaction and are often bored if they don’t get one. Unless motivated by personal revenge, they are just as happy finding someone else to cyberbully. The most effective response is to “Stop, Block and Tell!” when a Power-Hungry cyberbully is suspected.
If the cyberbullying doesn’t stop, either because they create a new online identity to get past the blocks or if they resort to cyberbashing posts or profiles, you are dealing with either a Revenge-of-the-Nerds type or someone with an ax to grind. If, instead of going away when ignored, they escalate their actions to get others involved through a cyberbullying –by proxy situation, it is crucial that the cyberbullying checklist is reviewed to understand the likelihood of real physical threats. If there is any doubt, law enforcement must be notified and the victim and their parents taught to keep a careful watch on themselves online through “googling themselves.” They can even set a Google Alert to notify them by e-mail if anything new is posted online with their personal contact information.
This type of cyberbullying is always mean, but not always committed by girls. It occurs when the cyberbully is bored or looking for entertainment. It is a social-exclusion method in which the cyberbully or teams of cyberbullies show their social clout.
It is largely ego-based and the most immature of all cyberbullying types. Typically, in Mean Girls bullying situations, the cyberbullies are female. However, Parry is seeing more males joining in Mean Girls groups or creating their own social groups of males who are in the “in crowd.” In each case (to Parry’s knowledge) of teen cyberbullying-related suicide, the cyberbullies used Mean Girl tactics to harass their victims. This style of cyberbullying is used more often to harass girls than boys and spreads very quickly. It is often a campaign, rather than a one-off incident.
Otherwise, cyberbullying victims are evenly split between girls and boys. (Power-Hungry cyberbullies often cyberbully boys (except in an all-girls’ school, where the Power-Hungry Cyberbullies are girls and cyberbully their classmates). Sometimes, a male Power-Hungry cyberbully will cyberbully a female, but it is rare. (They often have an unreturned crush on them, or were formerly involved with them in a romantic or close relationship.) The Revenge of the Nerds, however, cyberbully across gender lines frequently.
Mean Girls cyberbullying is usually done, or at least planned, in a group, either virtually or together in one room. This kind of cyberbullying is done for entertainment. It may occur from a school library, mall, lunchroom, or slumber party, or from someone's family room after school. This kind of cyberbullying requires an audience. The cyberbullies in a “mean girls” situation want others to know who they are and that they have the power to cyberbully others. This kind of cyberbullying grows when fed by group admiration, cliques, or by the silence of others who stand by and let it happen. It quickly dies if they don’t get the entertainment value they are seeking.
Unlike a bystander in an offline bullying situation, though, silence condoning these actions is not supportive of the Mean Girls’ actions. For a Mean Girl to really be effective, she must get others to help by actively passing along e-mails or IMs filled with the rumors, voting at the cyberbashing sites, or otherwise doing something to help spread the humiliation. They rarely threaten their victims, unlike the Power-Hungry cyberbully. They want to wound their egos, make them the focus of ridicule, and otherwise humiliate them.
Dealing with Mean Girl Cyberbullies
The most effective tool in handling a Mean Girls cyberbullying case is blocking controls. Block them, block all alternate screen names, and force them to go elsewhere for their sick entertainment. More than any other type of cyberbully, this type will quickly escalate if their audience knows they are being ignored by the victim. They cannot allow it to appear that the victim doesn’t care. If they give a cyberbashing party and no one comes and helps them by voting for the ugliest victim, they have lost face. So expect things to escalate. Googling yourself and setting alerts is crucial here.
Lifting their instant messaging accounts or shutting down their online profiles is very effective in fighting these cyberbullies. Their social life revolves around these tools. Reporting them as a terms of service violation or to WiredSafety.org can be the quickest way to stop it.
Creating a strong bystander prevention program works well, too. If they give a cyberbashing party and no one comes, they rethink tactics fast. If others refuse to vote against their target on a “fattest teens online” quiz, that quiz disappears fast. If their campaign doesn’t get the ratings, rankings, and reaction they want, it makes them lose standing.
Speed in reacting and removing online posts is important as well. The faster you take it down, the less damage it can do. Googling students and teaching them to Google themselves and set alerts gives everyone an early-warning system to online reputation attacks. And even minutes can make all the difference in the world.
If friends get into a fight, changing passwords before the other can misuse them helps prevent damaging attacks. Don’t choose a password someone else can easily guess. (Read “The Weakest Link – Passwords.")
The "Inadvertent Cyberbully"
Inadvertent cyberbullies usually don’t think they are cyberbullies at all. They may be pretending to be tough online, or role-playing, or they may be reacting to hateful or provocative messages they have received. Unlike the Revenge of the Nerds cyberbullies, they don’t lash out intentionally. They just respond without thinking about the consequences of their actions.
They may feel hurt or angry because of a communication sent to them or something they have seen online. They tend to respond in anger or frustration. They don’t think before clicking “send.”
Sometimes, while experimenting in role-playing online, they may send cyberbullying communications or target someone without understanding how serious this could be. They do it for the heck of it “because I can.” They do it for the fun of it. They may also do it to one of their friends, joking around. But their friend may not recognize that it is another friend or make take it seriously. They tend to do this when alone, and are mostly surprised when someone accuses them of cyberabuse.
Dealing with Inadvertent Cyberbullies
Inadvertent Cyberbullies can be prevented by teaching them to be careful online and to ThinkB4uClick. The more they understand how to set up and use spell checkers and read things over before sending them, the more likely they are to avoid hurting others by accident. Teaching care is crucial. They should check the address to which they are sending the message and ask first before posting information about others online. If they tend to send e-mails and copy the text of the prior message automatically in the message, they may want to reconsider that to avoid information being sent by accident to someone who is added to the e-mail in the middle of the chain.
It is more of an impulse control and carelessness issue than anything else and the more technologically literate they are, the more likely they will stay out of trouble.
Education plays an important role in preventing Inadvertent Cyberbullying. Teaching them to respect others and to be sensitive to their needs is the most effective way of dealing with this kind of cyberbully. Teaching them to Take 5! is an easy way to help them spot potentially bullying behavior before it’s too late.