Does Your Teen Recognize the Cruelty of Subtweeting?

Cruelty of Subtweeting“No way! Do you think this tweet is about me?” The abruptly frantic teen held her phone directly up in front of the face of her friend while they waited in the ticketing line at the cinema. While the post in question did not mention anyone by name, it was just juicy enough, and just vague enough to provoke hurt and ignite a digital firestorm.

“Seriously?!” the girl’s ever-loyal friend replied. “Who else would it be? She is such a B****! Gimme your phone. I’ll fix it.”

In one fluid motion and without further discussion, the two teens hovered over a single phone. They typed, whispered, revised. A brief eye nod and they posted the perfectly crafted, mean-spirited, rebuttal tweet, which also didn’t mention anyone in particular.

“There. That will shut her up,” the friend replied.

The two headed for the popcorn line with a fleeting sense of victory in their wake. However, it was clear that it would be their phones, not the movie that would possess their attention — and their emotions — for the next several hours.


Does the above scenario sound familiar? If not, welcome to the world of subtweeting, the social undercurrent that is siphoning the emotions of tweens and teens online. Subtweeting is simply posting a comment on Twitter that does not mention anyone by name but is, nonetheless, clearly targeted at a specific person.

Young people subtweet prolifically and with impressive skill, but they aren’t alone. Plenty of adults give into the temptation to jab another person online without naming them. Everyone from political candidates to professional athletes, to celebrities has taken subtweeting to new and sometimes dangerous heights.

Talking about someone behind their back, gossiping, and peer drama isn’t anything new. What is new is the digital amplification that has given subtweeting a life and power all its own. The result: Subtweeting is one of the most stealth and (dare we say?) “socially acceptable” ways to cyber bully.

Subtweeting happens on every social network not just Twitter (sometimes called vaguebooking on Facebook). And, though names (or @ mentions) are left out, comments inflict real emotional damage, as seen in the case of this brave, vocal teen that called out her subtweeters in a very public way.

Subtweeting feeds drama, conflict, and misunderstanding and causes immeasurable anxiety for teens caught in the middle of a heated exchange. But rather than give into this online cultural norm, you can help your kids understand how to navigate and avoid the magnetic undercurrent of subtweeting.

Family talking points on subtweeting:

  1. Pay attention. Did your child’s mood suddenly change? Is she looking at her phone every 15 seconds? An online conflict may be the cause. While you don’t have to hover over your child’s social feeds every day, you do need to be aware and drop in to make sure the tone and intent of comments, captions, and replies are on track. You will know subtweeting when you see it. (See graphic, right).SubF1
  2. Be objective. Kids have become agile in maneuvering through conflict online. It’s a culture they understand a lot more than we think they do. However, growing up in a digital spotlight isn’t easy, and the temptation to respond can be overwhelming at times. Get the full story before censoring your child’s online interactions. Translation: Don’t shame, accuse, intervene, or flip out. Connect with your child’s pain points and empathize with how hard it must be to deal with mean people online. Then guide her in options outside of subtweeting.
  3. Offer options. Adults and teens use social media differently. Understand that. Kids use Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat like a live chatting session. Thoughts aren’t always fleshed out, intent is murky, and concern for consequence is rarely present. If you notice your child subtweeting (either the one starting or responding), step in and discuss the emotional impact of subtweeting and the power of words. It’s also an opportune time to talk about empathy (the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person) as an option and what that means. Define passive aggressive behavior (expressing anger or hurt covertly) and explain the damage it can cause in any relationship be it online or off. The faster your child can recognize the behavior (in herself and others) the more equipped she will be to respond well. Also, if it’s not too late, encourage your child not to answer to an inflammatory public accusation. No response to a cyber bully is always the best response. The more you respond, the faster the conflict can escalate.
  4. Teach responsibility.The novelty soon becomes the norm, but social media isn’t a right, it’s a privilege. Kids who are one with their phones forget that. Subtweeting deflects responsibility for what is said and the consequences of saying it. Remind your child that Twitter is a very public, very far-reaching media channel that needs to be handled responsibly. Get specific with both expectations online and consequences. The teenage brain often has short-term memory challenges so don’t feel bad if you have to repeat yourself on the topic of responsibility.
  5. Seize the teachable moment. Discuss accountability.Encourage your child to express her feelings (offline) to the person she’s angry with rather than subtweet publically. Stress the rewards of standing behind one’s words and the maturity and integrity it takes to settle differences in private.Harmful Trend of Subtweeting
  6. Flip the power of subtweeting. If subtweeting carries so much power, why not use that power for good? Challenge your child to be the person who subtweets positive compliments and encouraging messages online. That way, when it’s read minus any one person’s name, that one comment will have the power to impact dozens in an uplifting way. One teen, Jeremiah Anthony, figured out the power of positive subtweeting and its power to fight cyberbullying by creating the @WestHighBros Twitter account that subtweets (and calls out names) of peers in a positive way. (See graphics, right).Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 11.22.33 AM
  7. Report abuse. We’ve all seen cyber bullying get out of hand. Remind your kids that when a conflict online is too hot to handle, it’s okay to come to you. You can also visit Twitter’s new and improved Safety Center to report a person who is abusive online.

Lastly, it’s important to keep your perspective intact. It’s not easy to see your child in someone’s digital line of fire but just breathe. Assess the situation. This is our digital reality and the challenges we need to prepare our kids for not protect them from (because, frankly, we can’t). Digital conflict is likely to spill into your child’s world more than once. Use the situation to teach your kids self-control, tolerance, and how to respond well in tough situations.




Toni Birdsong is a Family Safety Evangelist to McAfee. You can find her on Twitter @McAfee_Family. (Disclosures).

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