Spike in online teacher abuse sparks increase in hotline

Reports to an internet safety helpline have increased twelve-fold in just one week, as teachers grapple with an increase in abusive content shared on social media.

The Professionals Online Helpline (POSH), a helpline for people working with children and young people that is “primarily” used by teachers and school staff, reported a “surge” in number of reports sent to it over the past week.

The helpline typically receives about 20 calls per week, but the number has grown to an “unprecedented” 249 in the past five days.

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Last year, 67 percent of calls to the hotline came from teachers, while 20 percent came from other school staff.

Carmel Glassbrook, Project Manager at POSH, said Your that the reason for the sudden increase in reports was still unknown. “It could be a YouTuber or TikToker encouraging it, or a craze, or the teachers just become more aware of this behavior and therefore seek out the content and report it,” she said.

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Ms Glassbrook said the content shared was currently “99% TikTok,” reflecting the platform’s popularity among students, compared to 2020, when the majority of the content was released on Instagram.

Ms Glassbrook cautioned against the detrimental impact on teachers: “If you spend eight hours a day, five days a week teaching and you come home to find an account where they’ve tampered with pictures of you to be in pornographic situations or worse, this is obviously quite hurtful. ”

She added that liking and sharing harmful content creates a “dogpiling effect”.

“I think it has a very big impact on their desire to go back to school, so obviously that would be overwhelming.”

David Wright, director of the UK Safer Internet Center, added that “it only causes these massive storms which are causing panic”.

Ms Glassbrook warned that schools were reporting that students could create TikTok accounts without verifying email addresses, making it difficult to locate accounts.

Mr Wright explained that social media providers need to have more of a duty of care: “Isn’t it fair that providers, where they have kids on their platform, should have the same kinds of obligations? [as schools] and unload it in a similar way?

“So just by looking at schools, we see a lot of parallels around what due diligence means and how providers could or should protect everyone – but apparently children – on their platforms. ”

Ms Glassbrook added: “Teachers deserve the same kind of protection and safeguard as children, especially in terms of professional reputation.”

A director in North West England, who wished to remain anonymous, spoke to Tes about the impact of harmful content.

He revealed that the range of content created and shared online about his school or staff was wide, ranging from posts referring to incidents in schools to those highlighting issues such as suicide or self-harm.

He said this problem was leading teachers to feel too anxious to enter classrooms amid lingering tensions over Covid in schools.

“It’s another thing to deal with at a time when you’re already tired, feeling overworked and the pressure from Covid on everyone in the school community is still absolutely there,” he said.

He warned that “due to the anonymity of the nature in which you can post, there is simply no restriction on what they are willing to say, there is no real turning back.” .

When one account is deleted, another is created.

The director stressed that something had to be done because social media “is not going to go away”.

“It’s TikTok today and it could be Snapchat tomorrow, or a new platform that will be created in a few weeks.”

The director suggested that if people were to provide ID to create an account, they couldn’t hide behind the anonymity they are now getting.

He also had to create a TikTok account himself to post harmful content reported by his staff.

“I found myself checking back daily, with an inappropriate new account created since I looked yesterday.”

Another teacher warned that some shared content, such as innuendo that teachers behaved inappropriately with female students, is “really damaging.”

“It doesn’t take much for any of them to be dramatically misinterpreted or distorted,” he said.

“The things that worry me are just the utter inertia on the part of tech companies and the government to deal with what is kind of a growing problem that seems to be exploding. It’s impossible to pin down – they’re just finding new ones. ways around it. “

However, he doesn’t think that requiring ID to create social media accounts is the answer, adding that there is nothing wrong with access to apps, but rather regulation. of the content that is broadcast. He also fears that such regulations will marginalize people who would truly benefit from the Internet.

“My favorite solutions are largely aimed at the ability of these tech giants to profit from content that is clearly malicious, defamatory or insinuating, or insinuating any kind of wrongdoing against teachers.”

The Association of School and College Leaders said: “Over the past two weeks, school staff have suffered shameful abuse through posts and images posted on the TikTok social media platform. not how widespread it is, but we have received over 50 reports, and we believe there are many more.

“This material is extremely distressing for the targeted staff, and the young people who distribute it are involved in behaviors that could lead them to be excluded from school and, in extreme cases, to be the subject of a police investigation. .

TikTok responded to us saying that they are investigating the issue and using a combination of technology and moderation teams to identify and remove content or accounts that violate their community’s rules. he has already acted against a large number of accounts. He also offered to meet with us to discuss his response in more detail. “