Instagram has its benefits. Finding new recipes, sharing photos of your events. But it’s also become a place for cyberbullying. Many teens have started setting up fake pages and gossip “tea” accounts. Some of these Instagram drama accounts are downright hateful as they target LGBTQ students or call out “mean teachers.” Teachers and principals in our WeAreTeachers Facebook groups have been posting asking for help. They need advice with finding the culprits behind the anonymous accounts, how to respond, and ways to encourage a positive culture. The responses poured in, and we wanted to share the real answers to a tough subject.

Note: in all states, except Montana, laws are in place that mandate that schools have a formal policy to help with identification of the bullying/cyberbullying behavior and also discusses the possible disciplinary actions/responses that can follow. Some states, like California, are required to adopt a process for receiving and investigating complaints of bullying. School personnel is also required to intervene if they witness bullying.

Tips for finding the students behind the accounts

Many school leaders had suggestions for determining who was behind the anonymous accounts.

Start with the students who follow the fake/gossip account.

“Look at the list of kids following the account. Contact the parents and students of those kids to say that their child is connected to an account dedicated to bullying and harassment. Request that they unfollow the account to avoid investigation. This has worked really well for us. In fact, the account usually gets deleted. We might not find the creators, but we stop the posts. Good luck!” —Jennifer H.

Create a watchdog Instagram account and send a stock message. Consider including the disciplinary actions you have to take, per your state laws.

“I created a ‘watchdog’ IG account that would send a stock message to reported accounts regarding harassment, law enforcement, state laws regarding cyberbullying, etc. If there was the distribution of illicit material, I also cited any relevant laws regarding the distribution of those photos, and that we would be notifying law enforcement. Usually, that was enough to get most to stop.” —Andrew K.

Comment on the account to express your disappointment and the steps you’ll be taking.

“I leave a comment on their page and, usually in minutes, they’re shut down… ‘Hey there, buddy, I am going to give you one hour to shut this account down—not make it private but delete. If it’s still here after an hour, I will be contacting the Police Department who will then work with the City Intelligence to track down your account and IP address and ping your device. I will also contact our district’s IT department to collaborate. I am very disappointed to see this as your principal. This reflects nothing of our school vision that states to ‘live with integrity, act with compassion, and strive for excellence.” —it has worked every single time for me & I am a high school principal in a large city with 2,800 students.” —Jiae K.B.

Ways to enlist the help of other students

Others chimed in that they enlisted the help of other students to sleuth out the anonymous account creator.

Ask students to report any activity they see.

“Students in my school are pretty good at coming to administration when things like this pop up. We asked them to report the pages, and depending on the pages vulgarity, we sent it along through our school please liaison. Depending on the content of the message, our liaison officer will do door knocks at home to inform parents.” —Jessica F.W.

Offer a reward for information, but keep it anonymous.

“Offer a reward to the person that will give you information leading to those students, and assure them that their name is kept anonymous.” —Cathy N.

Meet in person with those who follow the account.

“Meet with students following the accounts. You probably won’t find the owner of the account, but it’ll certainly make it clear to all students that you’re watching.” —John M.

Find a trustworthy student to help uncover the account owner. Students are often more tech savvy!

“Find a trustworthy student, and they can navigate it to get the accounts taken down and figure out who created them. I had two students who created accounts in my name with a screenshot of my Facebook picture. It took a minute, but I had another student and my twenty-something children figure out how to report it and get it removed. There is a way to see the followers and figure out who it was created by.” —Holly D.K.

Leave it to the professionals

Some principals suggested leaving it to the professionals to handle the Instagram drama.

Invite speakers to talk about security and bullying.

“We have a speaker from Homeland Security speak each year. He’s excellent! Does a parent version for us, too! It certainly gets their attention FAST!” —Melodie M.

Enlist the police if needed.

“Our local and surrounding police have a cyber department that works on things like that. They live for it. I didn’t know it existed until I reached out. Try there.” —Jaime S.

Hand it off to the parents

One school leader suggested a different approach.

Stay out of it, and let the parents handle it.

“We are very limited in our dealings with social media. If kids are bickering with each other after school, that is on the parents. I will call and tell them that we are hearing about problems on social media and ask them to look into it. It was tough at first, but we just kept putting it back on the parents and now we deal with very little of it.” —Carolyn M.

Address bullying before it starts

Of course, getting at the root of the problem means working on social-emotional skills like kindness and empathy, and having clear tech policies in place. Here are some resources that can help:

How do you handle Instagram drama and rumor accounts? Share in the comments below.

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