Unprepared and overwhelmed

Online abuse and my children: a cautionary tale

As a father of three active children, I'm no stranger to calls from school in the middle of the day.

They happen a lot, and for all different reasons. Lunchboxes left at home, bruises earned on the recess playground, and the occasional conference reminder hit my phone a few times a month. At the end of the last school year, I got a call from the school with a voice I didn't recognize. It didn't take me long to figure out this call wasn't like the others.

The administrator on the other end of the line was struggling to find the appropriate words to describe to me what had happened. By the time he had gotten around to the point, it became clear I had missed a few options in my mental "worst case scenario" list.

Joking in real life, shaming online

A photo of my oldest daughter changing in the locker room at school had appeared on Instagram. Two puke emoji sat on either side of her, with some text mocking her for not having an ideal body. The account, which at the time only had the one photo on it, was specifically created for shaming girls at this middle school. The profile description made this clear, just in case including "exposing_bitches" in the account name wasn't enough to get the point across.

By the end of the call, I was a whirlwind of emotions and could barely stand up. My daughter doesn't have an Instagram account, and had not yet seen the photo. The only reason the school knew was a friend of hers had seen the photo and, knowing it was wrong, brought it to the guidance counselor. The school claimed to be conducting an investigation to figure out exactly what had happened, and in the meantime a request had already been sent from the school to have Instagram remove the account.

How do I explain this to her? What do I do next?

It would be another three hours before she got out of school and my mind was still reeling. How do I explain this to her? What do I do next? How is this kind of thing still allowed to happen with such ease? Do I call the police now or after I've talked to my daughter? What happens to the kid who probably thought this was a mostly harmless prank? Am I really willing to potentially ruin the life of another child by ensuring she's expelled from this school and the police are involved?

When she got in the car, I tried to prompt her for some additional information without dropping this horrible situation in her lap right away. She appeared to be looking at the phone when the photo was taken, so it was possible she was aware something had happened. For obvious reasons, phones aren't allowed in the locker room, but she explained that occasionally it did happen. This time in particular, a pair of girls claimed to be pretending to take photos as a joke, including the occasional follow-up about posting these photos all over social media.

Two days passed before we finally sat my daughter down and explained to her everything that had happened, in hopes that cooperating with the school investigation would lead to useful information to provide her with. We let her decide how to proceed, explaining the potential consequences of involving the police and the Board of Education. She made those decisions with as much information as possible, and has moved on with a new awareness of the way some people around her could possibly behave in the future. She never saw the actual photo or the hurtful words associated with it, but this is going to be something that sticks with her — and really the whole family — for a long time.

How is this still a thing?

This was not some kind of wake up call for me. I didn't just discover online abuse and harassment; it's something I and countless others encounter every day. Women, particularly those with opinions on the internet, are regular targets for this kind of behavior and worse. I wasn't even particularly surprised by the location; school bullying is a never-ending conversation right now and teachers are frequently overwhelmed by or underprepared for these events.

What I did walk away from this incident with was a renewed set of questions regarding abuse and harassment online. We regularly see lip service paid to protecting users by the companies making money from these services, yet it still takes zero effort to find obvious examples of what seems like avoidable abuse on Reddit, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook every day.

The account my daughter's photo was posted to was a public account with text explicitly stating it was for shaming girls who attended this middle school. And it's far from the only one you can find just by searching for "exposing bitches" on Instagram. These accounts are easy to find and clearly violate the terms of use for this service, but in my personal experience, Instagram waited for 15 individual reports of abuse to act.

Instagram is far from the only problem. Twitter regularly seems to ignore obvious threats when reported, despite clear violations of terms of service screenshotted and sent in every day. Facebook will automatically pull a photo if it's reported for nudity, but videos of beheadings have traveled through my feed for days before being pulled down. That's not to say any of this is easy, especially from a technical or automated perspective, but in many cases, it feels like these massive companies are not doing enough.

It's not just the technology or the companies building it. Parenting is often described as a combination of doing the stuff your parents did that worked and tips from other parents around you, but the age of the smartphone has a totally different set of rules. Smartphones are ubiquitous. By middle school peer pressure to own one is already set and none of these kids use the internet the way you or I do.

On some level, schools also have some responsibility to accept.

Regardless of age, many don't really understand how permanent the internet is and how severe the consequences of doing something for any kind of attention can be. Parents often aren't great at teaching these fundamentals, and schools aren't really covering the basics of online abuse and harassment as they introduce children to educational and social apps. There simply isn't enough education aimed at how to behave online or how to empathize with someone when all you have is a screen name.

On some level, schools also have some responsibility to accept. It's common now for after-school groups or multi-year programs in schools to use Instagram and Twitter as a positive outlet for kids. Photos of group activities are shared from these "team" accounts, so they can be shared by the students and appreciated by parents, with little to no time spent on discussing behavior on those services to match the positive experiences that brought them there in the first place. Just like the playground, if you encourage kids to "play" on the internet without a set of basic guidelines, boundaries are learned elsewhere and they aren't likely to line up with the values you had in mind.

What are we going to do now?

My daughter is going to pick up and keep going. She knows a lot more about how to handle this situation in the future, and we're constantly talking about how the internet works and what can be done to protect yourself and help educate others. She's sharing this information with friends, too. Things that seem simple, like not sharing your password with anyone and turning off location data when sharing photos online. I'm going to do as much as I can to collect those conversations and amazing content from experts everywhere so there's an easy-to-understand way for any kind of parent to start these same conversations at home.

I'm not going to solve abuse online, and neither are you. Some people really are terrible online because they enjoy it, and there's no such thing as an abuse-free environment when those people exist in the same space as you. It's a big, complex thing for all of us to constantly discuss, but that conversation isn't happening with a lot of kids until they're already on these services, assuming that conversation happens at all.

There are ways for parents who aren't tech-savvy or big social media users to be involved with their children's activities online, without being constant monitors of every little thing. There are tools to help your children protect themselves from many forms of abuse and help them understand the consequences for what may seem like a harmless prank or a quick post for attention. There are even ways for teachers to promote positive behavior while continuing to engage those students through these social networks, as well as enforce common-sense privacy and anti-bullying procedures created by the school.

Best Practices for staying safe on social media

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