Social manipulation can be difficult to spot and even harder to put a stop to.
Parents look for signs of physical bullying when they’re worried that their child is bullied. Alternatively, they will look for signs of cyberbullying:
- If their teen is stalked online
- Sent threatening messages
- Harassed via text or social media
However, they’re not the only ways that children and 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 probably recognize it – although this type of bullying is considered to be common to 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.
Social manipulation bullying is what it sounds like – bullies manipulating social groups and situations to benefit themselves and hurt 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, at least temporarily – long enough to gain their confidence, at least.
Then they’ll use the information they’ve gained against their target by exposing secrets the target shared with them 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 can be intimidating.
They form cliques and enforce arbitrary and often unspoken rules to exclude others from the group or so that they can punish or push out group members who break the 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 to fool the target into believing they’re not a threat or to convince authority figures that they’re not involved in any bullying.
Social manipulators use shame, gossip, and social standing to control and hurt others.
Why Do Bullies Use Social Manipulation?
Bullies who use social manipulation often do so in order to increase 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 those around them.
It’s also a way for the bully to draw attention to themselves.
Social manipulators may 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 the victim or the hero in the narrative they’ve created, garnering positive attention for themselves while their target or targets suffer.
Social manipulation can also be a way to 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 knocking down someone who might challenge them.
Social manipulation is also a learned behavior. Bullies who use these tactics have often seen it used by others:
- Parents or other adults
- Older teenagers
- Fictional characters in movies or television shows
- Real-life celebrities.
They see these bullying tactics achieve results, so they try them out themselves.
It’s also important to note that not everyone who engages in social manipulation bullying 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 pressured into it or they 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 of teens or school officials) often don’t see it, even if it’s happening right in front of them.
This type of bullying is subtle, and it can be easy to dismiss or minimize the signs that the victim is experiencing bullying. But even when it’s invisible, bullying hurts the victims.
They may feel the same effects that other types of bullying victims feel:
- Low self-esteem
- Loneliness and isolation
- Feelings of rejection and inadequacy
Like other bullying victims, victims of social isolation may suffer academically. They may develop eating or sleeping problems. They may have difficulty making friends and trusting others, and in severe cases, they may consider or attempt suicide.
It’s important for parents and other adults to take these signs seriously, even if they haven’t seen signs that the teen is being bullied.
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 manipulative, hurtful, and there’s a limit to what you can do as a parent.
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, helping your teen learn to assert themselves, and 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 or talks about harming themselves.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Is Social Manipulation Common?
Social manipulation is a type of bullying that typically is not 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 everyone against” the victim.
2. How Does This Type of Bullying Affect the Teen?
The victim can be affected in many ways and may exhibit low self-esteem, loneliness, feeling rejected, 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. However, if you think that it may not get better or you need help, treatment is easily available.
Dr. Nalin is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, and Founder and Executive Director of Paradigm Treatment Centers, who has been a respected leader in the field of adolescent mental health for more than 20 years. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California, his Master’s degree from Loyola Marymount University, his Doctoral degree from Pacific University’s APA approved Clinical Psychology program, and completed his training at the University of California, San Diego’s APA approved psychology internship program.
Dr. Nalin has provided training and mentoring to students entering the field of psychology at institutions of learning including Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology, UCSD, Pacific University, and Santa Monica College. He was also instrumental in the development of the treatment component of Los Angeles County’s first Juvenile Drug Court, which now serves as a national model.
Dr. Nalin has appeared as an expert on shows ranging from CBS News and Larry King, to CNN, The Today Show and MTV. He was also featured in an Anti-Drug Campaign for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
Dr. Nalin is a Diplomate of the National Institute of Sports Professionals and a Certified Sports Psychologist as well as a Certified Chemical Dependency Intervention Specialist. He lectures and conducts workshops nationally on the issues of teen mental health, substance abuse prevention, and innovative adolescence treatment.
In 2017 Dr. Nalin was awarded The Sigmund Freud Foundation and Sigmund Freud University’s Distinguished Achievement Award in recognition of his work with youth in the field of mental health over the course of his career.