‘Poisonous’: How WhatsApp exposes UK schoolchildren to bullying and harmful content | internet security
Victoria Tully, co-head of Fulham Cross Girls’ School, a state secondary school in west London, had no idea her new early years had invited people outside the school to join their WhatsApp group.
She only found out when a ‘strange man’ shared ‘horrific images’ with the 11-year-olds and someone alerted a teacher.
Tully explains that many first-years have been given a phone for the first time and find social media to be “benign” and exciting. She has learned that too often this is not the case.
“As a school, we are powerless to trace a man from a phone number,” she said. “It’s at the bottom of the list for the police. And it’s too late – they’ve already seen what they’ve seen.
After this incident, the school wrote a letter urging parents to be more aware of what their children were doing online and telling them that WhatsApp had a minimum age of 16 in the UK, so their children should not be there. be.
She is not alone. Schools across the country are grappling with the question of how to handle inappropriate posts, image sharing, adult content and bullying on social media. But Tully says that in her case, the correspondence had little impact.
She explains that many of her students’ parents don’t read English well, which makes it difficult to monitor messages, and that the slang their children use online is often “impenetrable” anyway. But more importantly, she thinks many don’t see the dangers.
“Many parents aren’t aware of what’s going on until something serious happens involving their child,” she said.
Mary Bousted, General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: “This is a terrible reminder of the damage that can be done both mentally and physically by young people accessing unmediated content.”
Managing social media fallout is now a major issue for its members. “When things are bad, social media heightens the angst of being a teenager,” Bousted said.
She worries that watching pornography online is distorting boys’ views on what sex is and fueling the sexual harassment that their research shows is “widespread” in schools.
“The pressure to conform to attractiveness standards that are the result of manipulated images is just enormous,” she added. “And bullying is so easy to hide online. There’s no escaping it all. No safe space.
Many schools are now banning phones, whether during class or all day, but Bousted says some find it difficult to enforce and they all know the problem is “much broader” than that.
Tully says her school works hard to educate students about the risks of social media and issues such as online bullying. But mediating between students who have posted hurtful comments, or ostensibly excluded someone from a discussion group, still takes far too much of staff time. the parents let them have their phones in bed,” she said. “But when you have an 11 or 12 year old crying in front of you, of course you have to get involved.”
A public secondary school teacher in Cardiff, who spoke to the Observer on condition of anonymity, described WhatsApp as “toxic” to teens and said parents of young teens should ban it.
“We have had students who received death threats on WhatsApp outside of school,” he said. “It has absolutely nothing to do with the school and it’s really a problem with the police, but they also lack the resources. That’s why the parents have to intervene.
He said much of what students share on their phones is pornography. At his school, a pornographic video with superimposed heads of teachers made the rounds on TikTok. “The idea that schools can somehow control all of this is just crazy,” he added. “We don’t have the resources for that and we haven’t had the training.”
Nor is it a problem affecting only older high school students. The headmaster of a Church of England primary school in London, who asked not to be named, said children as young as seven or eight were getting phones and he was constantly waging a war on the messages abusive online.
“They use every swear word imaginable on WhatsApp,” he said. “We’ve had homophobic and racist abuse directed at a single child, gross shaming, threats of violence and insults directed at siblings with special educational needs.”
The director regularly sends warnings to parents about WhatsApp security and encourages them to report bullying or inappropriate content to him. In many cases, he says, it falls on closed ears. “Parents themselves are addicted to social media,” he said.
Recently a local man had a heart attack on the road near his school and the principal gave him CPR. To his horror, he discovered the next day that some parents had filmed him on their phones and shared the footage on social media.
“This guy looked like he was dying – and the parents were filming him,” he explained. “And these are the people I rely on to help educate these kids on how to use their phones and what’s appropriate.”
A spokesperson for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) said it was “incredibly important” that parents have “open and honest” conversations with their children on social media, so that they speak to them if something serious happens. “We have to be realistic and accept that even if parents set limits, children and teenagers will push them,” she said. “It’s about being engaged.”
But she insisted that neither parents nor schools can solve this problem alone. The NSPCC wants ministers to bring back the Online Safety Bill which was dropped from the legislative timetable in July to make way for a motion of no confidence in the government.
Sir Peter Wanless, chief executive of the charity, said on Friday that the verdict of the inquest into 14-year-old Molly Russell, who took her own life after viewing thousands of Instagram images linked to self-harm and to suicide, “must be a turning point” and “a further delay or dilution of legislation which deals with the preventable abuse of our children would be inconceivable to parents across the UK”.