iKeepSafe Blog

Accidental Cyberbullying

Recently, cyberbullying has been getting some much needed attention – attention from the media, schools, and organizations that are looking to acknowledge and put a stop to this viral bullying. Although recent tragic events have unfortunately granted cyberbullying a closer look, I’m pleased that it’s finally being recognized and dealt with.

Even two years ago I found that many schools and organizations failed to confront cyberbullying, with the belief that they couldn’t do much about it, or even doubting the serious implications it has. As with all things technology-related, however, I’m seeing and hearing about a new trend in cyberbullying: accidental cyberbullying.

Apps like Instagram and sites like ask.fm are all the rage these days amongst kids; out with the complex apps and sites like Facebook, and in with the simple, easy-to-manage apps and sites such as Twitter. While these outlets allow its users to post pictures with simple captions, or post short thoughts, the emerging trend within a lot of social media is user-driven contests. You may have heard them referred to as “beauty contests” or “pop[ularity] contests,”and they are driving entire school systems and families to the brink.

In the past few months, the majority of schools that I have visited (early middle school through high school), and the majority of the ones I’ve been contacted by to schedule a future visit have asked me to address these contests, or survey sites like ask.fm.

There are many different ways they work, but here is generally how they go: on sites like Instagram: a user will post a collage of 4 classmates’ pictures and ask their followers to tag which person they think is the most attractive. The person with the most votes will win the “beauty pageant”, while the other 3 are considered the losers. On survey sites like ask.fm, users can anonymously set up an open-ended survey, asking things like “who do you think is more popular” and other users can anonymously answer back.

As you can imagine, these can also go from G rated questions (i.e. which sport do you like best) to R or X rated very quickly. One school highschool I visited recently had a major issue with a contest asking who was the most promiscuous in the school, prompting two students to drop out of that school as a result of what was said about them.

While these nasty contests and surveys are clearly an issue, I believe that the bigger issue is the accidental cyberbullying that goes along with this latest trend. That is, the users who set these things up, or who participate in them, not really meaning to hurt anyone’s feelings. An 8th grader recent told me last week that she set up a beauty pageant on Instagram to boost her friend’s confidence. She asked her other friends to vote for her in this contest she made, because she knew her friend had been feeling bad about herself and felt that winning this contest would make her feel better. In the process, however, three other girls were extremely hurt by not being voted as the “winner,” prompting a school-wide investigation and call to end such contests.

When I ask students if these contests or surveys are cyberbullying, the majority of them say no. Due to the popularity of things such as beauty pageants and survey sites like ask.fm, it’s my belief that kids often don’t comprehend the unintended consequences that come along with them. I think as parents and educators we should do everything possible to discourage and prohibit such contests, and promote the other positive uses of these apps and sites.


Former Director of Internet Safety for the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office and Intelligence Analyst for the Massachusetts State Police, Katie LeClerc Greer travels the country educating students, parents, administrators and law enforcement officers about technology and digital responsibility/safety. You can learn more about Katie at: www.klgreer.com

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