THE BLOG
08/30/2013 05:22 pm ET | Updated Oct 30, 2013

Accidental Bullying and Cyberbullying

Foot in mouth, gently remove.

There have been times where I've had to back-peddle and explain the unintended ignorance of comments I've made in life. I'm sure there are other people out there that can say the same; everyone has their flaws.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the Internet, keystrokes are made in cement. There's no digital rewind and anything can go viral. Even though it wasn't your objective, your words can be taken out of context by others when they're read and regurgitated, amplifying your digital footprint.

I first heard about the concept of accidental cyberbullying after reading a post on iKeepSafe by Katie Greer.

It all made sense. What starts off intended as perfectly innocent can end up being a series of hurtful comments and photos. I am speaking about kids, but this can happen with adults, too.

Katie Greer, former Director of Internet Safety for the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office and Intelligence Analyst for the Massachusetts State Police, shared some thoughts on this topic with me.

Q. How would you define accidental bullying?

a) Accidental bullying is a term that I came up with after talking with thousands of students across the country, getting their perspective on cyberbullying. I approach "traditional" cyberbullying in my presentations, and was often approached after by kids who were really concerned that they unintentionally hurt their friends' feelings, and wanted to know if they would be in trouble for cyberbullying. Oftentimes, kids described trying to be nice or positive to one friend or cause via various social networking sites, and unintentionally hurting someone's feelings, or leaving someone out in the process. In my experience, it's been such a common story and kids are feeling REALLY bad about it -- having not entirely thought their actions through. I don't think it's being talked about at all, and I do think it's worth singling out and discussing with parents and kids.

Q. Can you give us an example of accidental bullying?

a) The most common story I get is centered around these beauty pageants (or other like-contests/polls) that are happening all over social networking sites such as Instagram or Ask.fm. Kids know these contests/polls are riddled with negativity and admit to seeing some pretty nasty ones, so many say they have created ones with the intent to make their friends feel good about themselves. One group of 7th graders told me that a contest was set up on Instagram pinning 4 girls against each other, asking people to tag the ugliest of the four. Their friend received the most tags in this mean contest, so they decided to set up one with a positive tone, asking people to vote for and tag the prettiest. All these girls banded together to get their friend the most votes -- not realizing in the process they were unintentionally hurting the three others involved in this contest. They felt horrible, and were worried they would get in trouble for cyberbullying -- even though their true intentions were to boost their friend's ego. School administrators brief me on this type of incident daily, and are often unprepared to deal with it.

Q. Is accidental bullying limited to the Internet or do you see it on mobile devices? What apps do you believe it is most prevalent with?

a) Accidental bullying is absolutely not limited to the Internet -- in fact, I would say that the majority of the incidents that I've heard about are happening on mobile devices, and I'm seeing it in places where contests or polls can take place. In my experience, I've heard of this happening a lot on Instagram and Ask.fm, but there are new apps that come out daily where this can occur, so we have to be cautious of what these are, and make sure we're talking to our kids about them.

Q. What tips do you have to help kids and adults to avoid accidental bullying?

a) Listen, educate, and check-in. The only reason I know this is happening is not because I am talking to the kids every day, but because I listen every day. I learn so much from them about the current trends, and new issues (such as accidental cyberbullying) that I probably wouldn't have known about if it weren't for me asking them about their concerns. I think talking about it and recognizing it's happening is crucial, and when I talk about accidental bullying in schools I get a ton of feedback from kids and nodding heads - letting me know they're aware of what I'm talking about. Sometimes all it takes is a simple reminder or conversation to let kids know what the issue is, and how we should watch what we post or what polls we actually become involved with to help prevent this from happening.

Finally, we know that kids aren't always developmentally equipped to make the best decisions on their own -- if they were, they'd be on their own MUCH sooner than 18! As parents, we need to check in on what they're doing, making sure they're keeping things appropriate and positive. In this digital age it's not reasonable to think we can monitor every picture, post, like, app, and text they send/share/save, but we certainly can be involved and check in regularly to help guide them, as we do in all aspects of their lives.

Q. What can schools do to help prevent accidental bullying? What can parents and teachers do?

a) Educate. It's a simple conversation letting kids know that accidental bullying exists and that there are potential (unintended) consequences that come along with it. I say this everyday: most kids aren't bad, they just don't know any better! So, let's keep reminding them: proactive conversations can go long way in helping accidental bullying issues disappear entirely.

Takeaway tip:

Think before you post. It is that simple.
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