I’ve been thinking a lot lately about cyber-bullying. Maybe that's because a recent Pew Research study revealed that it's incredibly common—68% of teens they surveyed had witnessed what Pew calls "drama" on social media networks.
There's no lack of news articles on bullying, and a seemingly endless supply of websites and experts on the subject. (Here are two I found particularly useful: A Thin Line, I Am A Witness). But the things I found most helpful in all my internet-searching, were the actual examples of what cyberdrama looks like. How exactly are teens using social media channels to create social conflicts?
Teenagers represent an especially vulnerable population for negative emotional responses to cyberbullying. At the same time, attempts to mitigate or prevent cyberbullying from occurring in these networked spaces have largely failed because of the complexity and nuance with which young people bully others online.
There are as many different ways for teens to get into trouble as there are teens. For the next several posts in our series, I’ll share a specific (and common) scenario that would fall under the umbrella of cyberdrama.
Drama on Instagram
Some of the most common forms of cyberdrama happen on social media’s most popular platform: Instagram. And that might surprise you. Snapchat and Kik are regularly in the news for reasons that give parents pause, while Instagram seems tame by comparison. And to some degree that's true. But there are a couple of insidious ways that teens and pre-teens have found to exploit Instagram’s popularity, and use it in ways we all wish they wouldn’t.
TBH and Rate
This is a game teens play where someone will post a photo of themselves then ask their followers to "TBH and Rate" it. TBH = To Be Honest. Rate means asking others on social media to 'rate' their attractiveness. A lot of the examples I found weren't all that harmful—teens were largely kind to each other, and seemed to use the game as an opportunity for mutual appreciation. There were lots of affirming thumbs-up and hearts. But it's pretty easy to see how this could turn ugly.
A popular variation on the game also includes the words 'date' and 'hate.' Would a commenter want to date the person in the photo? Or do they hate the person (or their outfit, or their hair)?
A whole emoji language has developed around the game. Certain combinations of emojis signify feelings or comments. Blushing smiley-face means, "you're cute." Broken heart means, "I miss you." Flushed face means, "you're ugly."
When a teen who has a boyfriend/girlfriend posts a positive comment or emoji on the photo of someone other than their current love interest, it ups the drama level even more.
And all of this is done under the faux-virtuous umbrella of teens 'just being honest' with each other.
Exclusion is another common way teens can use Instagram to alienate others.
Here’s a fictional example that was created from a host of real-life scenarios researchers encountered. It was used by Dr. Jessica Vitak, an assistant professor of Information Studies at the University of Maryland in a recent academic research paper on cyber-bullying:
Ask your teen about tagging friends in photos, and I’ll bet good money they come up with an example like this from their own experience. It’s that common.
We’ve talked about Finstagrams—or finstas—before. These are fake Instagram accounts kids set up for a variety of reasons. Reasons that can include teasing or bullying other kids.
Suffice to say it’s worth investing some time to figuring out whether your teen has a finsta and, if they do, what they use it for. You can start by flat-out asking them. After they recover from the shock of hearing that word come from your parental lips, maybe they’ll open up on the subject.
Now that you know how teens can use Instagram to get in over their heads, what can you, as a parent, do about it? I'm going to skip past the 'talk to your kids' and 'consult your pediatrician' advice, in favor of something you might not have tried, yet.
Follow your kids on Instagram. You're resisting this, aren't you? Me, too. I don't have time to follow my own friends on Facebook or Instagram—why would I follow my kids' friends? But here's the thing: Instagram is actually a pretty cool app. And the time you spend there spot-checking your kids' social circles is an investment in parenting, not just another time-suck. Plus, you might run into some other great Instagram finds, like this. Bonus!
Read Instagram's "Tips for Parents." It's not short, but it is helpful. Here's an excerpt about how to block a user who's harrassing you:
If someone’s harassing you, such as repeatedly tagging you in photos you don’t like or sending you a lot of direct messages or trying to engage you in a creepy conversation, you can block them so they can’t tag you, contact you directly or mention you in comments. They also won’t be able to see your profile or search for your account. To block a user, go to his or her profile and select the Menu button on the top right side, then select Block User.