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Cyberbullying: The Subtle Bullying That Goes Under-the-Radar

The Hidden Forms of Cyberbullying

You know what cyberbullying is, but that doesn’t mean you always recognize it. Some forms of online bullying are so subtle, even the savviest parents miss them. And yet they can still be as cruel and damaging as more public forms of bullying. An awareness of these subtle bullying techniques will help you guide your teen through complicated social media relationships. Here are some classic examples of these more subtle forms of social media cyberbullying.

The Exclusive Photo

This tactic uses photos that show a group of friends having fun as a tool to make others feel isolated or unpopular.

“There’s no crime in posting an image of what you’re doing,” says Signe Whitson, a national educator on bullying prevention and author of 8 Keys to End Bullying: Strategies for Parents & Schools. “But in this case, the person who’s left out is very aware that their friends are sending them a message that ‘Hey, we were all invited to this party, or we all went out after the soccer game, and you specifically were not invited.’” Some teenagers take it a step further by tagging the person being left out.

Aggressive Liking

Clicking the “like” button on social media is intended to send a positive message. But when a frenemy follows your teen online and aggressively “likes” everything your teen posts, it becomes a form of mockery, says Caroline Knorr, senior parenting editor for Common Sense Media.

“It’s done to intimidate,” she says. “It puts the original poster on notice that everything you’re doing is being observed by someone who doesn’t like you or doesn’t have your best intentions at heart.”

No Comment

Tons of comments and “likes” are a sign of support and affirmation, so if your teen’s online post is greeted with silence, she may feel humiliated. Cyberbullies sometimes coordinate efforts behind-the-scenes to purposely limit responses, Whitson says.

Young people gauge their self worth on the number of likes and followers they get, Whitson explains. When a post gets zero response, “It’s like shunning. It’s awful.”


This form of cyberbullying occurs in the online gaming world, when one player follows another and harasses him by intentionally sabotaging his game.

“Griefing borders on stalking,” Knorr says. “A griefer can come in and dismantle everything you’ve done so you can’t go anywhere in the game.”

Sub-tweeting/ Sub-booking

A cyberbully uses Twitter (sub-tweeting) and Facebook (sub-booking) to post negative comments about an individual without naming her, but does so in a way that makes clear who is being discussed.

“It’s intimidating and it’s also humiliating because everybody sees it,” Knorr notes.


Start by lending an ear when your teenager wants to talk. Peers can be mean in many ways, online and off, and sometimes just letting your teenager dump about it goes a long way. If your teenager wants advice, great. If not, let it go. You’ve still helped by listening.

You can also talk more generally about mean cyber behavior and cyberbullying as a way of getting your teenager to open up. I’ve heard some teenagers will post negative comments about someone, but not use their name. Have you seen that?

Here are other ideas from Knorr and Whitson:

  • For younger adolescents, consider installing parental control software. By viewing your adolescent’s online activities, you can get a good idea of whether things are positive or negative in their online life (and whether you need to intervene).
  • Advise your teenager to block people who use these tactics, or to just sign off social media—but most teens won’t want to do either, says Whitson.
  • Remind your teen that she can flag and report offensive behavior to the social media platform or game moderator. Take screenshots of bullying statements or photos. Encourage your teen to strategize with you, or another trusted adult, when questionable behavior occurs, says Knorr.
  • Finally, ask your teen to stand up for others. Uniting with peers is the best defense against online bullying.

“Reach out to the victim and say ‘I support you,’” encourages Knorr. “What bullies try to do is isolate their victims and intimidate everybody else who might stand up for them.”

Mary Helen Berg is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, The Los Angeles Times, Scary Mommy, and many other publications.

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