Cyberbullying wasn’t even a word when my teenage daughter was born.

Now the concept is so obvious, and so pervasive, that when I started writing this blog post I immediately realized it would need to be a series of posts. Because in the world of social media and teens, few things are both so frightening and so likely as having your child encounter online bullying.

A Majority of Teens Experience Drama on Social Media

There are some hurdles when it comes to understanding what’s going on between teens online. One obstacle is that a teen's definition of what constitutes bullying is often different than an adult's. When Pew Research was conducting their Teens, Technology and Friendships study last year, they found teens don’t see “bullying” as frequently as they see “drama” or conflict between peers.

Previous research by Pew Research and others has noted that many teens use the term “drama” to describe conflict between peers, often in lieu of the term bullying. In this most recent study, 68% of teens who use social media have witnessed people stirring up drama on these platforms.

Pew Research Center

Throw out the labels

Step one for parents who want to get a handle on this issue, might be as simple as taking a step back from the labels we use to define it. If we ask our kids about the drama that’s happening at lunch, we may get more answers than if we ask if anyone at school is being bullied. If we also expand our concerns to include all sorts of bad behavior online (exclusion, breaches of trust, or even not standing up for one’s friends) we can stop worrying about whether a certain incident crosses the line to become “cyberbullying.” That puts more emphasis on the basic lessons of teaching our kids to be kind online. It can also help them to react in a healthy way when they encounter kids who aren't being kind.

Victims and bullies are sometimes the same person

It's a fact that the very term “bully” is loaded with unhelpful connotations. We can all imagine our child being a victim of bullying—it’s part of the hyper-awareness of danger that seems to come with parenting. But absolutely no one wants to believe their own child is a bully. And I think that’s part of the problem. When this issue comes up we immediately divide teens into two camps: bullies and victims.

This is not only unhelpful, but often untrue. While it’s more comfortable to imagine cartoon bullies, research indicates those don’t really exist. In fact, it’s not uncommon for those being bullied to also bully others. I would argue this scenario is even more likely than the burgeoning research suggests. So rather than focusing on casting teens into good guy and bad guy roles, our energy would be much better spent trying to engage everyone in the process of helping kids recognize the impact their words and actions have on others.

In order to improve the situation for everyone, we need to identify those behaviors that damage friendships and destroy self-confidence. Of course, at the most basic level things haven’t changed. Kids are still trying to work out how to relate to others, as individuals and in groups, and deal with their changing emotional lives. But the forum for unkindness—and the specific ways kids are being unkind—have evolved, alongside the new social media apps and social norms. So it pays to stay up-to-date on the digital world of teens.

What cyberdrama really looks like

What constitutes "drama" these days? What does it look like specifically, and how can we, as parents, recognize it? In our experience, drama takes a lot of different forms. We'll cover specific elements of some of the most common cyberbullying situations in future posts.

But, I'll leave you with an example:

Ann recently started going out with Tony, a boy from the grade above her. She was excited, but anxious for things to go well. That’s why she decided to share a few provocative pictures with Tony via direct message. Tony liked Ann, but his friends were teasing him because this was his first girlfriend, and because she was younger. So when he got the pictures from Ann, he decided to show off by sending one of the photos to a few of his closest friends. Tony was unaware that one of those friends was behind the school's main Finstagram account. For months the friend had been anonymously posting photos, spreading rumors, and creating drama. When the picture of Ann was posted, word spread quickly throughout the school.

This example is fictional, but it illustrates several things that are common to the kind of teen drama we've seen over and over:

  • Inappropriate sharing—While most kids understand digital permanence on some level, they don't always consider it in the heat of the moment. Even good kids, we've found, make poor choices when it comes to sharing images and information with others.

  • Betrayal of confidence—Once a photo is shared, the teen loses control of it. It's all too common for someone else to pass it on. We’ve seen many instances where something private didn’t just get inappropriately shared with a few friends, but instead soon found its way to an entire school or community.

  • In over their heads—At some point, each of these teens could have made a decision that would have avoided the end result. But making bad choices is often a hallmark of adolescence. Unfortunately, technology makes it easy for otherwise level-headed teens to quickly get in over their heads—and once the situation is out of their control, well, you can't put a genie back in the bottle.

Talking with your kids about the kind of ripped-from-the-headlines situations they may encounter is likely the best defense we have against poor adolescent decision-making. Knowledge is power. So look for future blog posts in this series for more specific cyberdrama scenarios. We'll also offer up some practical advice—based on what we've seen on actual teens' social media feeds and our collaboration with academic researchers.

Stay tuned.