Trends: Adult Cyberbulling is No Laughing Matter

shutterstock_89683588This past year is one for the digital record books. As incredible as it sounds, adults — not those impulsive, reckless kids — proved to be the more prolific bullies online. And, one glance at the latest headlines, and it’s clear, a digital cease-fire is nowhere in sight.

It seems every day we witness adult bullying online and off. We see blatant bullying behavior from political candidates, elected leaders, celebrities, respected public figures, and ordinary folks who become fast victims of cyberbullying simply from sharing their content online. Collectively, this adult segment has managed to drop the bullying bar to a new low by turning keyboards and media platforms into weapons.

In 2014 study, Pew Research found that 73 percent of adults have witnessed online abuse and 40 percent have been victims of it. That’s not a statistic adults can afford to take lightly. Bullying hurts no matter what your age and left unchecked, can affect you (and your family) mentally, emotionally, and physically for a very long time.

A Bullying Primer — for Adults

Bullying Defined: According to, bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.

To be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive and include:

  • An Imbalance of Power: People who bully use their power—such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity—to control or harm others. Power imbalances can change over time and in different situations, even if they involve the same people.
  • Repetition: Bullying behaviors happen more than once or have the potential to happen more than once.

According to the national advocacy group, Stomp Out Bullying, the act of bullying can come in several forms:

  • Cyberbullying is one or a group of people using electronic means via computers and mobile phones (emails, social media sites, chat rooms, instant messaging and texting) to torment, threaten, harass, humiliate, embarrass or target another person.
  • shutterstock_183063494Verbal Bullying often accompanies physical behavior. This behavior can include name calling, spreading rumors, and persistent teasing.
  • Emotional Intimidation is closely related to these two types of bullying. A bully may deliberately exclude you from a group activity such as a party or school outing.
  • Racist Bullying can take many forms: making racial slurs, spray painting graffiti, mocking the victim’s cultural customs, and making offensive gestures.
  • Sexual Bullying is unwanted physical contact or abusive comments.

Author and adult bullying survivor,  Sue Scheff writes extensively about adult cyberbullies saying, “How can we possibly rationalize this behavior in adults? It’s indisputable that grown-ups should know better, and the fact that they continue to harass is despicable. And today, bullying often happens online, which creates a long-lasting emotional sting.”

So, if the adults are the cyberbullies, where does that leave our kids? Who do they look to understand character traits such as tolerance, empathy, and common civility online?

This is your cue, parent, to push your way back onto center stage.

Help your child process what’s going on in the news.

Don’t assume your child is understanding and appropriately assimilating the adult bullying they see going on in the media (or even in their community). They are scrolling, laughing, and likely, confused about the adult bullying they see — whether they talk about it or not.

A) Have critical conversations about the power of words, the importance of humility, and the power of empathy. Be the digital role model kids so desperately need today. B) Model a healthy perspective online and off. Let your kids see you handle conflict well and weigh your online responses wisely. C) Allow them to see you make mistakes and make amends. Teach them tolerance, kindness, and forgiveness every chance you get. D) Teach your kids to create balance in the content they consume. Point out all the right stuff happening online outside of the rash of bullying they encounter.

So as an adult, what can you do if you happen to get into the line of fire with another adult? It’s not going to be enjoyable, but if you act swiftly, hopefully, you can cut the conflict short.

5 ways to deal with an adult bully online

  1. Ignore the bully. This is so tough but imperative. Do not respond to minor teasing or name calling. Sometimes bullies are encouraged by seeing a reaction. Don’t give them the satisfaction.  (Think about it: How much conflict could have been avoided this year had adults not responded emotionally online?)shutterstock_451041550
  2. Block the bully. The National Crime Prevention Council advises victims to stop all communication with the bully. Block their phone number, so you no longer receive their calls or texts. If that’s not possible, consider changing phone numbers. Facebook and instant messenger on all platforms allow providers to block other users so that they can no longer interact with you.
  3. Log off.  Most bullying is fueled by emotion, not facts. Rather than firing off a hot-headed response, log off and step back from the conflict. Depending on the level of emotion, this may require a few hours or even a few days dedicated to a cooling off period. With a little space, the issue may go away. It’s important not to take attacks online personally no matter how upset you become. Bullies and trolls can be heartless, equal-opportunity haters. So, making cruel remarks personal, while understandable, is often wasted emotion.
  4. Document abuse. Save emails and take screenshots of comments left on social media that document cyberbullying activities. Do this right away — a bully will rarely leave threats or offensive comments posted on social media up. Take a screenshot right away.
  5. Report abuse. Sometimes a conflict or bullying situation can escalate beyond reason. Know how to report abuse on Facebook and other social platforms. You will find report abuse tabs in the help sections of all social networks. Alert local authorities if a bullying situation gets out of hand. Every state law varies, so check your state for specific cyberbullying laws.

It’s clear that adults have crossed some digital lines this year that may be hard to reverse. Because we revere free speech so dearly in our country, that privilege also gets exploited by bullies who believe they can say whatever they want, to whomever they want, and never suffer the consequences. We know this isn’t true. Bullying always has social and emotional consequences, whether we experience them or not. It’s up to parents, educators, leaders, legislators, and family advocates to redraw those lines for ourselves and, more importantly, for the kids looking up to us for guidance.



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

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