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Adult Social Manipulation & Cyberbullying in Online Groups: How to Identify, Respond & Prevent It.

Adult social manipulation and cyberbullying in online social groups is an insidious problem that impacts victims, bystanders and has a negative effect on the group social dynamic. It can be hard to identify and address this behavior since it is often expertly masked by serial bullies.


How to Identify Adult Social Manipulation & Cyberbullying in Your Online Groups

Almost all of us have come across -- or will come across -- a bully. It can occur at any time of our lives. A common myth about bullying is that it's only a problem in childhood. Adults can manage issues with other adults in a mature, informed manner, right? While it's true that adults can engage in mature conflict resolution strategies, it's unfortunately false that these strategies will altogether stop a bully. Adult bullies are very similar to childhood bullies. They are intractably disposed to coercing, dominating, intimidating, and manipulating others, especially those perceived to be more vulnerable. An adult bully can also be more subtle and sophisticated than a child bully, and the approach they take can elude identification and prevention.

Please keep in mind that bullying behaviors are not exclusively exhibited by online trolls or outspoken group members. You may be witnessing social manipulation and cyberbullying firsthand from leaders in your group if the following behaviors occur in the groups you're in:

  • Admins, moderators, or active, trusted group members assert their authority in subtle or overt ways that intimidate, insult, and dismiss other members.

  • People are often afraid to speak up, or only speak up to express what they know the admins, moderators, and active, trusted group members want to hear and will like.

  • Admins, moderators, or active, trusted group members spread gossip and rumors about other members, or they notice other members doing this and allow them to, even 'liking' their harmful posts.

  • Bystanders who were formally neutral, begin to engage in this toxic behavior. They are misguided into believing they are stating facts or helping others since they have absorbed the leaders' bully behaviors. They can become very aggressive in loyal support of the admins, moderators, or active, trusted group members.

Adult Bullying is Often Exhibited as Passive Aggressive Bullying

Passive Aggressive bullying behavior from adults is a form of bullying that is rampant through many of our online communities. It can be difficult to identify, and difficult to address due to the sophistication of some of the ways it manifests. It's not uncommon for victims of this type of bullying to feel the devastating effects of negative gossip and ridicule that occur more subtly.

As this blog article, written by Preston Ni from Psychology Today, The 5 Major Ways Adults Bully Each Other explains:

"This is a less frequently mentioned form of bullying, but in some ways, it's the most insidious. With many bullies, you can see them coming because they are quick to make their intimidating presence known. A passive-aggressive or covert bully, however, behaves appropriately on the surface but takes you down with subtlety. Examples of passive-aggressive and covert bullying include negative gossip, negative joking at someone’s expense, sarcasm, condescending eye contact, facial expression or gestures, mimicking to ridicule, deliberately causing embarrassment and insecurity, the invisible treatment, social exclusion, professional isolation, and deliberately sabotaging someone’s well-being, happiness, and success."


How to Respond to Adult Social Manipulation & Cyberbullying Internally: Work on Your Confidence & Shift Your Point of View About the Bully

Work on Your Self Confidence -- You Are So Many Wonderful Things!

Social media manipulation and cyberbullying can cause people to lose confidence and self-esteem when communicating with others online. They may succumb to feelings of self-doubt and become increasingly isolated. Addressing the bullying externally is essential, to remove the threat and toxicity from your life. But the healing that has to be done is all internal. You can start by rejecting the lies that the bullying insinuated or that were directly said about you and replace them with the truth about who you are. Focus on learning to be you again. To get started, write down your positive characteristics.

What are you good at? What are your strengths? What do you like about yourself? What do your loved ones and friends like about you? Focus on the positive things you have going for you and reject the negativity caused by the bullying.

Work on Shifting Your Point of View About the Bully - to Improve Your Mental Health

Consider the bully's background and history. Use that information to help you logically deconstruct their power over you, while also allowing you to feel empathy for them - if warranted.

Here are a few common background scenarios to ask yourself about the adult bully you're struggling with:

1. Does this person run through friends online? Have you heard from others who had hurtful experiences with this person, but you assumed it was just a clash of personalities, and you never imagined it could happen to you? Many people who behave like bullies in social media groups leave clues behind. You might find that they have a history of this behavior, and you're probably not the only one who has experienced their toxic, harmful behavior. This knowledge can help make it less personal, even if they have targeted you personally. This may just be their normal way of interacting online. While this is not helpful in stopping their behavior, this information can help you not spiral into thoughts of thinking something is wrong with you, or that you caused the bullying.

2. Has this person recently risen to a position of authority, in their profession, or in the group you're both members in? Sometimes when people rise into positions of authority, in their professional or personal lives, they can get caught up trying to establish that authority in places and ways that aren't appropriate. It's possible they'll come into balance after some time, but this does not mean you should tolerate poor behavior from them. This is just another way to not take their aggression personally. You can address their poor behavior while not allowing it to cause you to second-guess yourself and your worth. This is their problem. You're going to address it, but you did not cause it.

3. Does this person have a history of abuse or mental illness in their life that can help you frame and understand their current harmful behavior? Having empathy and sympathy for someone doesn't mean you endorse harmful behavior, it just helps you cope. You can still take measures to address a bully's negative behavior while also having room for empathy and sympathy.


How to Respond to Adult Social Manipulation & Cyberbullying Externally: Get Help & Pick Your Battles

Document Every Detail & Get the Group Mods Involved

If you're dealing with a chronic bully, the most important thing you can do is document the behavior. Take screenshots of abusive messages. Check your group's anti-harassment policies. They may have specific guidelines on how to report the bully’s behavior. If the bully is the admin or one of the moderators, then share that documentation with a neutral mod. If there are no neutral moderators, then report the abuse directly to the social media platform.

Do this every time the harassment happens to build a case against this person.

Get Other Members and Friends Involved

As noted above, most chronic bullies have picked on more than one person. Reach out to people you know were bullied and see if they are willing to band together with you to call this person out on their behavior. Working together puts all of you in a greater position of power, and when you have that, usually the bully will back off. Many times bullies are cowards. They may pretend to act like their behavior isn't harmful, but when you confront a bully as a group, you may find that their harmful behavior stops.

Pick your battles

Deciding on how to react depends a lot on the frequency and severity of the bullying behavior. If the behavior is not excessive or harmful and you only interact with the bully on occasion, then keep your distance. Disengage from posts authored by this person, or consider leaving the group and stay out of that person’s line of sight.


How to Prevent Adult Social Manipulation & Cyberbullying: Be an Upstander, Not a Bystander & Be Open about Mental Health & Wellness.

Be an Upstander, Not a Bystander

Although we can't control how others behave online, we can take steps to improve our own experiences and behavior and how we respond to the negativity.

1. Begin by addressing that being a bystander has historically included witnessing and ignoring -- or even participating -- in harmful and/or negative behavior. Choose a different path. Choose to be Upstander.

If you receive a mean meme, witness a hurtful comment, or see someone struggling with digital harassment—do something.

  • Report and flag the abusive content to the social platform.

  • Never forward, engage, or 'like' malicious content.

  • Reach out to someone hurting online. (Private message, text, email. Any form of communication so they know they're not alone).

2. Work on your susceptibility to engage in negative behaviors that others could interpret as bullying. Just because you're not making eye contact, and you can't see a person, doesn't mean that you can't injure them with your words. Be mindful that tone is often missing online, or can be easily misinterpreted. Go above and beyond to make sure that your tone is not neutral enough to be interpreted as abrasive, coercive, or mean. The extra effort you put into monitoring your social media communications goes a long way toward not harming others.

Maybe you don't intend to hurt anyone's feelings but you're just swept up in your group's toxic aggression. Maybe you enjoy it when the bullies in your group like your comments and posts. But please consider, do you really want attention at the expense of someone else? Is that the hallmark of a lasting bond made with others online; making fun of someone else? If you're in a group like this and lured in by the rush of excitement when people like your toxic posts, please take note: your negative words hurt others. And the people liking your negative comments today could be the very same ones turning on you with negative comments tomorrow.

3. Be a model of supportive behavior not just for yourself, and your community, but for your children, too! While adult bullying remains a problem, childhood bullying is still considered a social epidemic. The best way to combat the epidemic of childhood bullying is to show your children how to be fair, logical, and kind, to prevent them from becoming a bully to others, and how to be confident, strong, and resourceful, to help make them as bully-proof as possible. Focus on moral character and behavior modeling for your children. Lead by example toward being part of the solution, not part of the problem of bullying.

Be Open About Mental Health & Wellness

There is strong evidence that many people who are bullied suffer a hit to their mental health that can limit growth and happiness in different areas of their lives. Anxiety, Depression, and Suicide are known to be lasting effects of bullying. Sadly, many of the people executing the bullying were bullied themselves, thus continuing the tragic cycle of abuse.

Adult social manipulation and cyberbullying may not result in the same number of terrible outcomes, compared to other forms of bullying. But we still need to be mindful of the impact minor bullying incidents can have on our mental health, especially if we are already going through other stressful life events (which most adults are). Recognizing how important our own mental health is can help us be more open about mental health and wellness in general, in all aspects of our lives. We need to increase this awareness and this transparency in our social groups, including our online groups.

When we see someone spreading hurtful gossip or a rumor, or 'liking' someone's negative comment or nasty meme about another person, we can choose to do more than just ignore that. We can reach out to that person and let them know how hurtful it is to behave like that. We can ask them to please take the other person's mental health into consideration, not because that person is ill or needs help, but because the words we write about one another have an impact on one another's mental health. We can choose to have a positive impact by truly caring for one another's mental health and advocating for fair treatment of each other, no matter if we disagree on political points, or have different views on all aspects of life. We all deserve to be treated with respect and our mental health is of the utmost importance.

If you find yourself engaging in negative behavior that may be hurting others and you want to make a change, please consider the following tips:


Adult bullying of any kind can be a very serious problem. This article is not intended as a substitute for legal advice or psychological treatment. If you are struggling with this issue and need mental health support, please visit NAMI for resources, including a free and confidential health helpline. Find more info at


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