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‘Spilling the Tea,’ the Cyberbullying Tactic Plaguing Schools, Parents and Students

It’s more like a scene from the teen drama “Gossip Girl”. Middle school students create anonymous Instagram accounts to determine who’s dating, who’s cheating, and who’s carrying weeds in their bag. In some cases, kids post pictures of other kids, making fun of their hair or clothes. Some accounts spread rumors about the students’ sexuality.

The latest form of online bullying is happening in schools across the country, and like other forms of bullying from the past, it can lead to fights, social rejection, and self-harm.

Parents are begging school administrators to close accounts. Social networks tend to respond, especially when it comes to allegations of criminal behavior, but schools still say they are overwhelmed. Even when Instagram closes accounts, reporting them is like playing Whac-A-Mole – once kids know adults are aware of them, they delete posts or accounts and create new ones.

Meanwhile, tension between parents and teachers over this rumor – aka “the spilling of tea” – is raising questions about who is responsible for students’ social lives online.

Ultimately, online security experts say that parents are responsible for what their children do on their devices. There are things that parents can do to alleviate this phenomenon – we will explain them below.

“Farb Drama”

Schools were on high alert after threats of school shootings spread on TikTok on Thursday; Earlier this year, some kids took part in TikTok challenges to vandalize bathrooms. Last month, when fights broke out every day for a week at Farb Middle School in San Diego, the first thing President Courtney Rizzo thought should be a new challenge for TikTok.

But a school employee alerted her to five accounts on “Farb Drama” – four on Instagram and one on TikTok – where students were spreading rumors about other kids and posting videos of fights. Ms. Wafia learned that the students were saying something that angered two of the students in order to provoke, film and publicize the fight.

Ms. Rizzo sent an email to parents urging them to be aware of their children’s social media activity. The school has also held meetings on cyberbullying and safety, and has set up a task force for parents. She said the fights stopped, and the students or their parents removed the drama’s accounts. However, one Instagram account that contained a video of a fight in the bathroom was still up and running as of Friday.

Rich Westocki is a retired police investigator who has spent 25 years investigating online child exploitation and now advises individual schools and school districts about online safety through his company, BeSure Consulting. He said that a quarter of his customers reported the problem with “Thai” accounts this year. While some include high school, most occur at the middle school level, he and others say. He learned of students who changed schools or attempted suicide after being bullied on these accounts.

Many schools have policies that state that online activity that disrupts a student’s day is a school order, even if it occurs outside school hours. That’s why many areas are reporting these rumor accounts to Instagram and urging parents to talk to their kids.

Mr. Wistocki said social media companies usually remove accounts that violate their terms within 24 hours. If it comes to criminal behaviour, he said, accounts are usually deleted within hours. He added that when accounts include criminal activity or are used to incite violence, the school has a legal responsibility to report it to law enforcement.

A Wall Street Journal investigation found that TikTok only needs one important piece of information to know what you want: the amount of time you spend on a piece of content. Every second you hesitate or re-watch, the app tracks you. Photo illustration: Laura Kamerman/The Wall Street Journal

Lisa Crenshaw, a spokeswoman for Meta Platforms, the Instagram mother company

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“This behavior can be common with teens including on apps like Snapchat and TikTok, which is why we invited a new industry body to create standards for age-appropriate experiences, age verification and parental controls.”

Sometimes schools can determine who is behind the account by questioning the children who follow it. In cases where Mr. Wistocki is able to help the school identify a repeat offender, he gives a presentation on cyberbullying in that student’s classroom. “That usually puts an end to it,” he said.

with revenge

Cyberbullying is nothing new; It’s so common, there’s even insurance for it. But these gossip accounts, which often include the school’s name and the word “tea,” gained popularity this fall, as students returned to school buildings full-time after more than a year of distance or hybrid learning.

“The children were very repressed in their ability to get together with other children before the school year started,” Mr. Wistocki said. “Now that they’re back at school together, they want to cement their place as a celebrity, a leader, and they’re doing it for revenge.”

Mr Wistocki said kids are posting gossip about each other on Snapchat and TikTok too, but Instagram is where he and school officials say they see the accounts. On Instagram, kids can easily send direct messages to the account holder who then posts the gossip, which stays for as long as the account is running. On Snapchat, messages disappear quickly. Since TikTok is video-centric, it is difficult for users to remain anonymous, experts say.

When parents learn about these accounts, they look to schools to close them.

“I don’t know what kind of government authority they think we have, but we don’t have the ability to shut down Instagram accounts,” said Benjamin Horsley, a spokesperson for the Granite School District in Salt Lake City. There are so many rumor accounts that one of the county’s social media managers did nothing but deal with them. “We have one school that handles 30 of these accounts, and that’s just one school out of 24.”

SafeUT is a crisis phone and text line in Utah that people use to report anonymously if they feel unsafe. Alerts schools when calls are from students. Mr. Horsley said the Granite School District has so far received twice as many crisis line advice as it did by this time last year, and that the majority are related to cyberbullying and harassment.

what you can do

If you learn of cyberbullying involving students at your child’s school, it’s wise to alert officials, but good digital citizenship starts at home.

Remind children of the basics. It may seem like a no-brainer, but online security experts say it’s helpful to remind kids that behind every screen there is another human being who, just like them, has feelings. It’s also worth reminding kids that even if they think they’re posting anonymously, there is no such thing as true anonymity. Mr Wistocki said that friends often get along with each other.

Teach children to apologize. Decades in law enforcement have taught Mr. Wistocki that children learn a more powerful lesson when they own up to what they have done, rather than simply facing punishment. Even when children he works with in schools are involved in cyber-bullying on a criminal level, he encourages schools not to expel them or file charges; He puts them in a program he created that includes writing a research paper, performing community service and writing letters of apology to children who have been hurt.

Share your thoughts

Are your children being bullied online? How did you or the school deal with it? Join the conversation below.

Encourage the children to be a “supporter”. Even if your child is not the one being bullied or engaging in bullying, there is no need to stand by and watch what happens. Diana Graber — who teaches online safety classes for parents and students and has written a book called Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology — said it’s important to teach children to stand up for someone who is being bullied. This could mean reporting bullying to a teacher or a parent, reporting a gossip account to Instagram or reaching out to victims to let them know they have a boyfriend.

write to Julie Jargon at julie.jargon@wsj.com

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