4 Steps to Prevent Online Bullying

Mike Moloughney

Cyber bullying, or online bullying, continues to be a significant problem for teen and child-focused online communities.  What are the steps a site owner can take to prevent or minimize this type of behavior in their online community?


First, let’s give a quick overview of cyber bullying.  Cyber bullying is similar to “regular” bullying, but is done through electronic means (e.g., cell phone, computer, tablet).  There are many avenues for cyber bullying: social media sites, text messages, forums, and chat rooms are among them.  According to the US Department of Health and Human Services Cyberbullying Research Center, a stunning 52% of students reported being cyber bullied.  It may be difficult for adults to relate to cyber bullying as the sheer speed and scale is much greater than bullying that we grew up with.  No longer is bullying just done face-to-face.  Being able to disparage someone online provides not only anonymity, but also, an extremely wide audience.

So, how can we address this problem?  For this article we will focus on online communities specifically.  As many parents know, teens and children spend a significant amount of time communicating with other kids in online forums like chat.  Based on a recent study by Netmums, almost 75% of parents believe their children spend only an hour a day online.  Children reported an average of two hours per day.  With children spending so much time online how can site owners establish safe communities?

1. Publish Your Policy

The first step in preventing online bullying is for the site owner to have a strict, no tolerance written policy in place on your site.  All sites have a list of policies that users are expected to adhere to.  The consequences for violating the bullying portion of the policy should be severe – immediate suspension of the bully’s account.

2. Leverage Technology

The site owner should utilize a filter in place to prevent certain types of language from being used in chat rooms.  Inversoft’s CleanSpeak™ platform has a stringent “blacklist” of words associated with bullying (e.g., fat or hate).  An intelligent real-time filter allows a moderator to add words and phrases to make sure it is kept up to date with current slang used by kids and teens.

If a user types one of the blacklisted words or phrases into chat, the filter immediately takes action by blocking content or tagging the message for moderator review.  There are multiple options that a site owner can utilize when configuring the filter – block the message entirely, replace the word(s) in question with ***, employ the bozo filter technique or let the message go through if the word is considered mild.  When a message is bozo filtered it will only be shown to the author.  No one else in the community will see the content.  In any case, the text is logged and the moderation team is informed.

3. Take Consistent Action

Once informed, moderators can take appropriate action.  Based on the severity of the words used in chat, moderators can ban the offending party and disable their account; issue a warning (possibly with a short account suspension, like 30 minutes); or, in the most mild of cases, do nothing.  Through a conversation or Threaded View feature, CleanSpeak gives moderators the ability to review multiple messages from before and after the text that was flagged.  This provides moderators some context of the conversation and allows them to take the most appropriate action.  The moderation policy should be clearly documented to ensure consistency.

To be on the safe side, the account of the person being bullied can also be suspended.  This is done to prevent additional messages from reaching the user and causing further damage or embarrassment.   The user name of either the bully and/or victim can also be blacklisted so other members of the community cannot continue any additional discussion.

4. Actively Manage the Community

An active community manager can be a great resource to promote positive behavior and discourage harmful acts like bullying on your site.  Posting relevant articles on your site regarding bullying can be beneficial to parents looking for a way to communicate with their children regarding the dangers of cyber bullying.  Also, rewarding positive behavior within your community can provide a strong offset to any negative comments.

Tiffany Richison, User Engagement & Community Manager at Everloop, provides an example: "As a community manager, I like to empower kids to report others if a post makes them feel uncomfortable in any way. There are times, however, that rather than reporting one another for bullying behaviors, community members choose to speak-up against comments they feel are offensive or mean. If done in a respectful manner, this breeds a supportive network, positive energy, and provides an open, accepting forum for a bully to take responsibility. Online communities for kids and tweens should allow them to learn and grow from mistakes, as well as encourage socially appropriate interactions such as this."

One option for a site owner to consider is whether to inform the parents of the child being bullied.  There is no “one-size-fits-all” answer to this question.  At times it may be warranted, other times it may not.  Typically the site owner should NOT try to counsel the child being bullied, nor should you engage in further discussion with the bully.  In any case, there should be an escalation path for more serious cases (e.g., moderators can inform the community manager of any repeat offenders).

Completely eliminating cyber bullying is, unfortunately, not a realistic goal.  Hopefully the guidelines we’ve discussed here can help site owners provide a safe forum for kids and teens to interact online.


Further Reading:

Cyber / Bullying Statistics

Our Children in The Digital Age

Online Bullies: Parenting in Real-Time