As August comes to a close, schools across the nation are opening their doors–both virtually and physically–and students are set to start a new (albeit unconventional) school year. As if parents don’t already have enough to worry about, there’s a new trend on Instagram that warrants some concern: school-specific inappropriate Instagram accounts.
What Is An Inappropriate Instagram Account?
Well, “inappropriate Instagram account” is a rather vague descriptor and can apply to many, many online accounts. But the specific type of account that parents need to be wary of are accounts that claim to have association with a specific school or school district, but are not run by school staff members.
These inappropriate accounts are created by anonymous students and appear normal and safe on the outside. However, once students begin following the account, abusive messages are sent through the Direct Messaging (DM) system, and in some cases, security breaches have been reported.
A school district in Cincinnati recently reported one such account. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that “the account was reported to administrators through Mason City Schools’ tip line. In a letter to sixth-grade parents, Mason Intermediate Principal Greg Sears said it was created by an ‘unknown individual with the purpose of spreading gossip, rumors, and negative comments.'”
According to a statement released by the school system, “The MI administration, counselors, teachers and resource officer are aware of this concern and we are actively working to give our kids strategies to deal with negative information on Instagram,” Sears wrote. “… Our message to the students is to not engage anyone they don’t know personally, block users from their account, delete users and not contribute to negative posts.”
Hoover City Schools
Another instance of an inappropriate school-related account being reported happened in Hoover City Schools in Central Alabama. Apparently these inappropriate accounts were using terminology associated with the school, faking users into believing they were a legitimate school account. In addition to sending abusive direct messages, these accounts were breaching privacy by sharing information that the users were made to believe would be kept confidential.
The following email was sent to Hoover parents and Students on Monday, August 31:
Over the past few days, multiple Instagram profiles have popped up claiming to be run by “anonymous” students. The profile names often incorporate “Tea Room” or “Shade Room” in the name and use school logos. Schools locally and nationally are experiencing this issue.
The profiles in question promise anonymity for students who provide content or otherwise engage. The profiles also ask students to vote in various polls ranging from teacher preferences to political preferences. As students interact with these accounts, their responses are often displayed via screenshot for everyone to see, obviously breaching the promise of anonymity.
We are reporting these Instagram accounts as we see them. Students, please be aware of the harm these Instagram accounts may cause you. Likewise, parents, we encourage you to always monitor your child’s social media activity. Numerous social media resources exist for parents, including Common Sense Media.
Again, we wanted to alert you to these disturbing Instagram profiles which have the potential to embarrass, compromise, or otherwise harm you and breach your personal data.
Dr. Kathy L. Murphy Superintendent Hoover City Schools
Instagram Fights Back
Noting the vicious rise of cyber-bullying, Instagram rolled out the ability to Restrict accounts that are abusive or harassing in October 2019. Instagram states the following regarding the Restrict feature:
Once Restrict is enabled, comments on your posts from a person you have restricted will only be visible to that person. You can choose to view the comment by tapping “See Comment”; approve the comment so everyone can see it; delete it; or ignore it. You won’t receive any notifications for comments from a restricted account.
Direct messages will automatically move to Message Request, and you will not receive notifications from a restricted account. You can still view the messages but the restricted account will not be able to see when you’ve read their direct messages or when you are active on Instagram. You can choose to “Unrestrict” the account and future messages will go directly to your inbox.
NPR reported on the anti-bullying feature in 2019, quoting head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri: “Most of it seems to happen between people who know each other in real life … and teenagers are often reluctant to report or block their peers who bully them online,” Mosseri said in a past interview with NPR’s Audie Cornish. “The controls that we had before were insufficient.”
While cyber-bullying is far from a new online risk, the use of school-related accounts is somewhat novel. It would be beneficial for parents to become familiar with best practices for their children who are engaging with social media platforms.
We recommend consulting Common Sense Media, an online resource for parents. Common Sense Media has information categorized by broad topic and even child age group.
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