when staying relevant online means bullying for today’s adolescents — and how to remedy it

Written by Felicia Rateliff

“You’re so perfect. I hate you.”

“You suck.”

“You should go lay on a train track and kill yourself.”

“You’re ugly. Nobody cares about you. Go kill yourself.”

What do you think these phrases imply when posted as comments on social media? Are they sarcastic and meant as a joke? Or are they bullying?

Comments like these are commonly added by young people to photos and comments on sites like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, usually without a second thought on how it will make another person feel. If you want to see the full, disturbing effect, check out the tag “#killyourself” on Twitter. You’ll be astounded.

Trying to fit in and being bullied because of who you are or how you look seems to be synonymous with tween and teenage years (of course, it can continue past those stages). Now, though, the job of looking right and being “cool” has ascended to a new level of difficulty due to social media. If students don’t fit the mold, they get picked on — on and offline. 

In a 2010 survey of young students, 55 percent reported they were bullied because of their looks. Thirty-seven percent said they were picked on because of their body shape. That means 92 percent of students who took the survey said bullying happens because of appearance (David and Dixon, 2010).

To gain some insight into the complex social world of the modern teen, I recently caught up with a couple of Midwestern high school girls who gave their take:

Me: “So, what do you have to do to be popular and not be picked on in high school now?”

Maddie: “Being popular, or just not being made fun of, is all about appearance. You have to be skinny, have perfect hair, no acne. Basically, you have to not look like you’re going through puberty.”

Sarah: “Yeah, and you have to appear to have the right financial status, you know, like, have all the name brand clothes and accessories like the newest phone, tablet, smart watch. Oh, and you have to have a ton of Instagram followers, too.”

Me: “How many Instagram likes you have matters online? Or in real life, or both? Explain.”

Maddie: “Yeah, both. You have to have a lot of followers on Insta to be cool online. But then your friends in school have to see that you have followers, or you’re not cool enough. And you have to look good in all your pics, or people will make fun of you in person. It’s a whole status thing based on appearance.”

Sarah: “But, like, if you look too good, you get the whole, ‘I hate you, go die.’ thing. You can’t win.”

This online and offline pressure to keep up appearances juxtaposed with the idea that high schoolers who look too cool may be bullied isn’t just a phenomenon happening in the Midwest; it’s occurring all across the US. After a short search, I found a recent episode on the highly popular podcast This American Life, called “Status Update.” This particular podcast episode featured East Coast teens describing the exact same situation the two young girls I met described.

The girls on the show explained that young people are now brands. They are obligated to comment and like their friends’ and acquaintances’ posts on social media so that they can develop and maintain a status in their school. They have to promote themselves and stay “relevant,” which one girl defined by saying, “Relevance is when people care about what you’re posting on Instagram and when people want to know what you’re doing. People want to open your Snapchat stories.” As an aside, I highly recommend listening to the first 10-minute part of this podcast, especially if you’re a teacher, administrator, counselor or parent.

Kids seem to be their own marketing managers, and if they don’t promote themselves in just the right way, their target market responds by posting bullying messages on the Internet. This trickles down to real-life bullying. In a 2015 study, 90 percent of teens who report being cyberbullied have also been bullied in person (George and Odgers, 2015).

What can we do to remedy this situation? Being picked on because of appearance has been happening for centuries. But we can help young people understand the impact this kind of bullying has.

  • We can model behavior we want our students and children to mirror, such as complimenting them on things that are not appearance-based and by giving positive feedback instead of complaints.
  • We can education students on bullying and empower them to be part of the solution by using resources like the Hey U.G.L.Y. website (one of our nonprofit partners).

Here’s some feedback that the students I interviewed gave about handling bullying:

Most unhelpful things that teachers do about bullying:

  • Tell the student to solve the problem by himself
  • Say that the bullying wouldn’t happen if the student acted in a different way
  • Ignore what’s going on
  • Tell the student to stop tattling

Most helpful things students want teachers to do about bullying:

  • Listen to the student
  • Check in after the situation is over to see how it resolved and if they need more help
  • Give good advice on how to handle the situation

And finally, something we can all do is spread the word that it is never OK to tell someone to kill himself. Not sarcastically. Not on Instagram or Twitter. Not ever.


If you are being bullied for any reason or are having thoughts of harming yourself or committing suicide, please call 800-273-TALK (8255).

Author Felicia Rateliff is Impero’s U.S. Marketing manager, former high school teacher, mother of four daughters ranging in age from 17 to 25 years old and past victim of bullying in school and the workplace.

Impero education network management software can help your school in the prevention of bullying and student suicide. For more information, call 877.883.4370 or email now.