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Coping with Bullies Who Text: When SMS-ing Becomes “Textual Harassment”

By Dr. Jerry Weichman

By now we know that online bullying can leave a trail of destruction in its wake. It occurs fast and can have long-lasting repercussions. But what about a bully who doesn’t just try to tear you down by posting on your Facebook wall or anonymously on Formspring but who also attacks you directly via your cell phone?

When friends have a falling out, former besties can turn into bullies. Many times those who feel the most comfortable with their victim, such as ex-friends or boyfriends and girlfriends, turn to text bullying to hurt, embarrass, and intimidate their target. This sort of “textual harassment” is more common than most adults realize and happens on a regular basis.

Most often text bullying is in the form of name calling or threats. However, textual harassment can also be defined as the repeat sending mean, embarrassing, untrue, or hurtful message to or about someone and also includes sexting, or sending sexually suggestive texts.

By hanging onto a text message that is disparaging about another individual or a suggestive photo sent via text, it is typical for a bully commit what amounts to “textual blackmail.” The bully uses the old text as ammunition to discourage a victim from reporting their bullying or to entice the victim to provide them favors.

Text bullying is especially harsh because it is direct message to the victim that can be received any time and any place. While a victim can attempt to evade an online cyberbully by shutting down their computer, it is not often that tweens and teens are without their cell phones. Victims feel like they cannot escape the text attacks.

And unlike cyber-bullying, many parents do not even consider to ask their teen about whether or not someone may be harassing them via their cell phone. As a result, the victim of a text bully often ends up feeling isolated, violated, and fearful.

While most victims of text harassment know the identity of their bully, it is not always the case. Some text bullies will send messages from a friend’s cell phone or ask people to forward a bullying text to the victim. Even worse, many pay-as-you-go phones do not require proof of identity to purchase them and keep no record of the owner. Text messages sent made from these types of cell phones are basically untraceable. Text bullies use these phones to harass their victim, making it seem like “everyone hates you” while still avoiding identification.

Are you dealing with a text bully or know someone who is? Here are five tips for coping with “textual harassment”:

Do not respond. It doesn’t matter whether your response is an attack back or if you are trying to clarify or question something. Responding in any way simply serves to escalate the conflict. By replying to a harassing text message, you are telling your bully that you will reply to their behavior and they will continue to attack via text message.

Do not delete. If you can, forward the text messages to a place where you can print them or at the least, keep a record of the harassing texts you receive, including date, time, and the number they were sent from. You will need a record of the messages, and ideally the texts themselves, in order to make a report and end the harassment.

Do not keep it to yourself. While it may feel embarrassing or scary to show parents or another trusted adult the text messages you are receiving, it is critical that you reach out for help and support. Whether you decide to report the harassment to your cell phone provider, change your phone number, or file a formal complaint either through the school or law enforcement against your bully, an adult can help you navigate the process. Finally, if the texts are physically threatening in any way, it is key that you share them with police sooner than later.

Do not ever text revealing photos of yourself to anyone, even people you trust. When friendships or relationships end, these images can be passed around or posted online with negative (and even legal) consequences.

Don’t let other people define who you are. You may feel like you are over-reacting by sharing harassing texts with your parents, teachers, or administrators but you’re not. But you do not deserve to be cut down by anyone, whether via text or other means, and there are many adults out there to help put a stop to the bullying you are facing. Remember that you are not something or someone just because a bully says you are. Try to seek out people with whom you have common interests and try to form healthy friendships with people like you.

Jerry Weichman, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist focused solely on teen and preteen issues. Based out of his private practice at Hoag Hospital’s Neurosciences Institute in Newport Beach, Dr. Jerry is also an author of a teen self-help book, “How to Deal,” and a noted public speaker on teen-related topics including parenting, bullying, and adolescent coping skills. Overcoming a lower leg amputation as a child to eventually become a Division I college football player provided Dr. Jerry with unique perspective on coping with—and overcoming—difficulties during the adolescence. Keep up with his tips for teens (and parents of teens) at twitter.com/drjerryweichman or via his home page, www.drjerryweichman.com

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