Understanding Social Manipulation and Bullying

teen girl with PTSD

Social manipulation can be difficult to detect and even harder to put a stop to. Parents look for signs of physical abuse when they suspect that their teen is being bullied. Alternatively, they may look for signs and symptoms of cyberbullying if their teen is stalked online, sent threatening message, or harassed via text or social media. However, these are not the only ways that teens can be bullied.

Some bullies use social manipulation to hurt their victims, and these tactics frequently fly under the radar of parents, teachers, and other adults. Once you know more about it, you’ll more easily recognize it. While social manipulation is considered common among pre-teen and teenage girls, they’re not the only ones who use it. And you may even recognize the same tactics you’ve seen workplace bullies and other adults use at times.

What Is Social Manipulation?

Bullies who use social manipulation don’t necessarily attack their victims directly. Bullying in the form of social manipulation is just what it sounds like – bullies manipulating social groups and situations to benefit themselves and damage their victims. A bully using social manipulation might spread hurtful rumors about their victim. These may be false, or they may contain a bit of truth combined with some exaggerated or fabricated details. It’s not uncommon for social manipulators to befriend their targets – often least temporarily – long enough to gain their confidence. Then they’ll use the information they gained through the relationship against their target by exposing secrets or exploiting vulnerabilities they’ve observed. Some social manipulators may be able to do this surreptitiously while appearing to remain friendly with the person that they’re targeting.

Social Manipulators Are Intimidating

They form cliques and enforce arbitrary and often unspoken rules to exclude others from the group and/or punish or push out group members who break their rules. They often use peer pressure to convince others to participate in bullying their targets. Many even pressure others to do their “dirty work” for them, allowing them to maintain a façade of innocence in order to deceive the victim into believing they’re not a threat or to convince authority figures that they’re not involved in bullying.

Why Do Bullies Use Social Manipulation?

Bullies who use social manipulation often do so in order to elevate their own social status. When a bully reduces someone else’s social status, their own often improves. Moving up in the social hierarchy can provide insecure bullies with a self-esteem boost as well. However, that’s not the only reason that social manipulators use these types of tactics. Social manipulation can arise out of boredom. Juicy gossip, salacious rumors, exposed secrets, and general backstabbing create drama and excitement. The bully who’s pulling those strings and creating the drama feels powerful because they’ve successfully manipulated the narrative around them and about the bullied victim. It’s also a way for the bully to draw attention to themselves.

Social manipulators may also manipulate events in a way that makes them appear to be innocent, but not necessarily in a way that makes them appear uninvolved. They may be able to paint themselves as a victim or the hero in the narrative they’ve created, garnering positive attention for themselves while their target suffers.

Social Manipulation Can Eliminate Competition

For bullies who fear that another person is going to surpass them in some way, social manipulation can be an effective way of maintaining the top spot while cutting down someone who might be positioned to challenge them.

Social Manipulation is a Learned Behavior

Bullies who use these tactics have often seen it used by others including:

  • Parents or other adults
  • Older teenagers or siblings
  • Fictional characters in movies or television
  • Real-life celebrities

They see that these bullying tactics achieve results, so they try them themselves.

It’s also important to note that not every teen who engages in social manipulation is the instigator of the bullying. The instigator often has willing accomplices who participate for their own reasons. Or, reluctant accomplices participate because they’ve been bullied into it and fear becoming targets themselves.

How Social Bullying Affects Victims

Because social manipulation relies on underhanded tactics and relational maneuvering, people outside the social group where the manipulation is happening (like parents or school officials) often don’t recognize it, even if it’s happening right in front of them. This type of bullying is subtle, and it can be dismissed or minimized, obscuring the signs that the victim is bullied. But even when it’s nearly undetectable, bullying hurts the victim and they may experience:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Loneliness and isolation
  • Depression
  • Feelings of rejection and inadequacy

Like other bullying victims, victims of social isolation may suffer academically. They may develop eating or sleeping problems and may experience difficulty making friends and trusting others. In severe cases, they may consider or attempt suicide. So, it’s important for parents and other adults to take the signs of social manipulation seriously.

What Can Parents Do to Combat Social Manipulation?

Social manipulation is hard to combat because it often doesn’t break any “official” rules or laws. It’s subtle, manipulative, hurtful, and there’s a limit to what you can do as a parent to combat it. It’s important to talk to your teen about what they’ve experienced. Remind them to set boundaries and limit contact with people who do not treat them well. Focus on building self-esteem, help your teen learn to assert themselves, and assist them in developing healthy coping skills. Encourage your teen to exercise control over the things that are actually within their control. Keep an eye on their social media activity and make it a point to listen closely when your teen talks about their experiences. Be ready to step in and speak to school officials or authorities if the bullying crosses a line, especially if there are safety issues involved, and look into resources like mental health treatment and therapy if your teen seems to be suffering from depression, anxiety, trauma, or talks about harming themselves.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Is social manipulation common?

Social manipulation is a type of bullying that typically is not readily picked up on by parents, teachers, or other adults. It is most common among pre-teen and teenage girls as a way to manipulate social groups to hurt the victim, or turn others against the victim.

2. How does this type of bullying affect the teen victim?

The victim can be affected in many ways and may exhibit low self-esteem, loneliness, feelings of rejection, depression, anxiety (especially in social situations), inadequacy, and difficulty with trusting others.

3. I think my teen is being socially manipulated. What can I do?

Knowing the signs of social manipulation and talking to your teen is the first step. It’s important to teach assertiveness, self-esteem, and coping skills to your teen. Step in when appropriate and consider therapy for your teen if it seems warranted.

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