Helping Kids Respond to Mobile Harassment

by Dr. Joel Haber

Filed Under: Cyber Bullying

  • M obile phones and the Internet are the new "bathroom walls" where kids can cast a web of anonymous gossip to a much wider audience.

  • This is the newest and potentially most dangerous form of harassment, when one or more individuals use mobile phones, the Internet or other digital devices to inflict psychological harm on another individual through instant messages, emails, and social networking sites. Short-term, this can disrupt a kid's social standing, status and comfort and cause anxiety and depression. The impact of this form of harassment long-term can result in psychological harm, depression, anger, violence, low self-esteem, and even suicide.

  • It is much easier for teens to be mean when there is no direct contact with the target.

  • In a recent study, teens acknowledged a variety of negative behaviors using mobile phones. These behaviors include fight notices, sending or forwarding explicit photos and videos, and texting mean-spirited accusations. While most kids view these texting and sexting actions as a normal part of teen life, the damage caused spreads with viral speed across the school yard, and often times ends up online, where it lives forever and will become a written, permanent record.

    Adults often don't see or hear this behavior - and some chalk it up to "kids being kids" - so the perpetrators go unpunished and the targets of the malicious gossip and photos are left to face the threats alone. In fact, research suggests that only 1 out of 10 kids tells their parents or guardians if they are harassed online.

    Online and mobile harassment, teasing and other forms of bullying are challenging to manage and control, and most often are anonymous and indirect. As a result, it expands the pool of potential harassers by enabling large groups of teens to launch a coordinated attack without ever facing their target. It is much easier for teens to be mean when there is no direct contact with the target and emotional responses and reactions in that moment are not seen.

  • Types of Threats

    Harmful and risky mobile messages can be categorized into a few groups:

  • Rumors whether true or false ("so-and-so has an STD" or "so-and-so hooked up", etc.)

  • Put-down threats ("I hate you", "No one likes you")

  • Masquerading messages in which the texter is pretending to be the victim ("I have a crush on you")

  • Creating fake identities and using them to manipulate others

  • Snapping explicit photos and videos, whether consensual or not, and sending them to school administrators, to other kids online, parents, etc.

  • Texting fight notices and sending photos and videos of the event

  • Sexting inappropriate and explicit photos and text messages

  • Mostly every teen has at some point seen, forwarded, talked about, or otherwise enabled the viral spreading of harassment-type messages. This is mobile harassment in action each and every day.

    Do kids do this on purpose with an intent to harm others? The answer is confusing to some. Teens and tweens may not realize that their actions, in participating in the spread of these messages, may be causing more harm and damage. Teens actually view the spread of messages, photos and videos, whether good or bad, as commonplace, harmless and even fun. It is a part of how they communicate with their network of friends. In most cases, senders do not think about the harm or consequences of their actions when they send or forward these messages or photos. The adolescent brain may not be registering the potential damaging impact it may have on their target.

    How do we then, help our kids deal with this behavior problem? It is important to remember that as parents, we understand the consequences of such actions. We need to make it safe to talk to our teens about the outcomes that can occur from spreading harmful messages and helping them feel a sense of responsibility.

    Ask them - "would you want this to happen to you, or your sister or brother?" - to begin the process of having them understand the implications.

    Educating our teens on their role when involved in this form of behavior is the first positive step we can take to alleviate the spread of inappropriate messages and to create a more positive environment for our kids.

  • Ways Parents Can Encourage Helpful Behavior When Faced with Mobile Bullying and Harassment:
  • Address acceptable and not acceptable mobile and Internet communication. When your child gets a mobile phone, tell them about appropriate behavior and let them know when behavior crosses the line and becomes hurtful or mean to others.

  • Teach our teens to stop and think about what they are doing before they take action on a text message. (See the LG "Give it a Ponder" campaign as a learning tool -

  • Help your teen gain a sense of responsibility for the well-being of others and the willingness to help another. Tell them you value being a good citizen to others as a family value. Make sure you behave the same way!

  • Stress the significance of speaking out against children who hurt others through their mobile phone or online, or, if this is not safe, providing help to the targeted child in a confidential way that makes them feel safe, or reporting such actions to you or another responsible adult.

  • Make sure your teen has someone to go to report any direct threats- to you, their school, a hotline number, or the police.

  • Make sure your teen knows that it is never okay to threaten anyone through their phone, online or offline, make fun of others, post embarrassing photos, impersonate others, forward salacious messages about others and so on. Tell them that the consequences of this behavior may be to face the police, school administrators or legal authorities. In the case of sexting, one teenager faced having to register as a sex offender when she sent explicit sexual photos of herself (a minor) to her boyfriend.

  • Ask your teen that if this were done to them what would they want from their friends? Remind them that it is important to be a helpful bystander, meaning that it's never okay to support the bullies by encouraging their harmful behaviors.

  • Parents never want to believe their child could be a victim of internet or mobile harassment, nor would they expect their child to encourage behaviors that are intended to hurt the "target" of the aggression. We, as parents, need to realize that this is the new reality of the internet and mobile world.

    I recommend that parents first need to learn the text messaging language of the Internet so we can communicate with our kids. If you take the time to learn the shorthand that they now use, (which can be found at you gain credibility to begin discussing these issues with your children. Let's help them to communicate in the virtual world appropriately and ethically and to break the malicious cycle. This will go a long way in making you the parent they can trust when they experience mobile or internet harassment and need help.

Filed Under: Cyber Bullying


Joel Haber

Dr. Joel HaberThe official bullying consultant to the American Camp Association, Dr. Haber leads popular workshops and conference sessions on bullying and violence prevention nationwide.

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