Responding to cyberbullying in safe and constructive ways

Young people need guidance from adults on responding to online cruelty in ways that keep them safe and help them use their voices to interrupt negative messages.

Studies show that young people rely heavily on the adults in their lives to help them use the internet responsibly and safely, especially when they witness or experience online cruelty. All the adults in their lives – parents and grandparents, teachers and other school staff, youth leaders, neighbors and many others – have a role to play in providing this kind of support. When young people receive similar messages in all the settings where they live, learn and play, they are better prepared to respond safely and to use their voices in positive and powerful ways.

Adults can share several strategies with young people who are targeted by cyberbullying or who witness it happening to others online:

  • Stress how important it is to stay calm and not react quickly out of anger or fear. Encourage kids to be aware of their thoughts and feelings before moving to action.
  • Don’t retaliate. Even though a young person’s first response might be to use the same hurtful tools as the person doing the bullying, emphasize that retaliating can make a situation much worse.
  • Don’t feed the bully. Share with kids that in some situations, the best response may be no response at all. Sometimes people are hoping for their targets to lose their cool and have a strong response so they can boast about this to others. In the virtual world, this can mean that many other people might see a victim’s response.
  • Sometimes, if it is safe, it may be important for kids to use their voice to respond publicly or privately. Help them know when to use their voice publicly to show that they do not tolerate or support hurtful behaviors. Help them consider whether it would be helpful to follow up privately with the person who sent the hurtful message in a respectful and caring way that holds that person accountable.
  • Whether kids respond to cyberbullying publicly, privately or both – in person or online – stress the importance of being respectful, constructive and clear. Sometimes people really do not know that their actions have been hurtful, and responding to them with clarity and without blame or shame can be very effective.
  • Emphasize how important it is to be a friend to those who have been targeted. This may mean responding publicly to hurtful messages about others, and it also involves reaching out to victims to find ways to support them.
  • When young people or their friends are targeted with threatening or ongoing negative messages, tell them to keep the evidence (such as screen names or links to messages). Help them follow up by lodging complaints with the website or service where a message was posted or shared.

Above all, emphasize to young people that their emotional and physical safety, as well as the safety of others they see who are targeted, is paramount. Stress how important it is for them to share their concerns with trusted adults.

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