If uber-cool kids like Justin Bieber, Iggy Azalea, Emma Stone, and Miley Cyrus can become victims of cyberbullying - and yes, it’s happened to all of them - it can happen to anybody. Your child very much included.
Bullies are nothing if not survivors. They have a sneaky way of shape-shifting as technology evolves. Right now, with the meteoric rise of photo-sharing app Instagram, we’ve entered the Age of the Insta-bully. And not even Insta-superstars like Selena Gomez are safe - despite an army of 128 million followers (aka ten times the Australian population). As for lesser mortals, a whopping 42% of teens reported being victims of Insta-bullies in a large-scale British survey conducted in mid-2017. Facebook - which incidentally owns Instagram - came in second at 37%.
For adult users, and many teens as well, Instagram is a fun, easy way to share photos and short videos: holiday snaps, “food porn” (carefully styled food and beverage pics), images of sunsets and pets. But there’s a darker side to Instagram that takes advantage of users’ near-total anonymity to target and harass other users. Instagram hosts more than 800 million users daily, many of them teens. But unlike Facebook and many other platforms, it requires no identification from users, and imposes no authentication process.
On Insta, anyone can create a fake email address and set up a new account - or for that matter multiple accounts - without fear of being traced. It’s like a cloak of invisibility for bullies, an unfair advantage they exploit to the fullest.
How does it happen? Let us count the ways.
1. The most common form of Insta-bullying is simply posting malicious or humiliating photos of the victim - so-called blackmail pics. Sometimes bullies orchestrate photo-ops themselves. One tactic, called “the slap game,” involves a random slapping attack on a target, which an accomplice films and posts. Another trick is to take candid and unflattering screenshots during a Facetime chat.
2. Comment bullying - posting hurtful, snide or sarcastic comments on the victim’s own postings - is a familiar form of cyberbullying. It’s just easier to avoid detection on Instagram.
3. Insult tagging is a way bullies link offensive material to victims’ feeds. Example? A pic of a homeless woman is posted with a caption that says “this reminds me of @username.”
4. Hashtag bullying uses cruel hashtags like #tryweightwatchers or #savethewhales to increase traction and possibly even make a post go viral.
5. Rating looks is a form of bullying as old as social media itself. (Facebook began life as an underground “hot or not” app circulated among Harvard undergraduates). That doesn’t make it any less hurtful. Or dangerous. The practice exposes teens to strangers, and invites other bullies to join in the “fun.”
6. As noted above, fake accounts are so easy to create, even a parent could do it. (NOT recommended!) There are two ways bullies do this. The first is through blatant identity theft in the form of a phoney account made in the victim’s name, which is used as a home for fictional posts and humiliating images. Bullies may also create fake accounts to cover their own identity, and make their trolling untraceable. In both cases, victims are frequently left isolated, humiliated and terrified to return to school.
7. Posting screenshots of private text messages is a particularly nasty way of savaging a victim’s privacy and self-esteem. Typically, it’s a message about confidential issues with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or a family member. A bully who gains your child’s trust in this way, and then betrays it, can destroy friendships with a single click.
The good news - yes, there is some! - is that Instagram has just announced a suite of anti-bullying features that will give users stricter control over comments and allow blocking of nuisance commentators. Users will also be able to set their profiles to “private.”
If your child becomes a victim of Insta-bullying, what can be done? Psychologist and cyber educator Jordan Foster, one of Family Zone’s team of cyber experts, offers these tips:
Report the abuse to Instagram.
Once you’ve reported the abuse, consider blocking the perpetrator.
Encourage your child to set her account to private.
Consider disabling location sharing, which can make any user more vulnerable to tracking.
Manage visibility by turning off automatic sharing settings.
No doubt Insta-bullies will find new and improved ways of targeting victims. Watch this space to find out more. In the meantime, don’t wait for abuse to happen. Why not familiarise yourself with Instagram right now? Their handy Parents’ Guide is a great place to start.
And remember that, at Family Zone, we understand that navigating this terrain as a parent is difficult. But you're not in it alone - our team of Cyber Experts can help you sort out what apps and content are appropriate for your child, and provide you with the tools and resources to help you protect your children online.
Instagram is a perfect case in point. While indispensable for many adults and older teens, it is not a place for younger children. Use Family Zone to create a customised set of filters to protect every member of your family in a way that’s nuanced and age-appropriate.