Have you been a victim of an abusive TikTok video? Online safety expert Dr Holly Powell-Jones details what action teachers should take

By City Press Office (City Press Office), Published

Have teachers in your school been targeted on TikTok?

That's what history teacher Tom Rogers asked in a November 2021 tweet. His question received hundreds of answers. Almost all of the people replying said that yes, either they, or teachers they knew, had abusive videos made about them by students.

One teacher said: "Yes. I've spoken to several head teachers this week where staff have been targeted…all invasive, some offensive [and] a few homophobic examples. I believe last month was 'kick in a toilet' month [and] the latest/next is steal an item off a teacher's desk…with more themes throughout the year!"

Another commented: "Yes and some very cruel and personal comments were made. For some of them, slanderous accusations were made. Reported them but they do not block most of them and they keep coming daily. Some very upset staff who feel they don't want to come to work."

Yet another said: "Yes. Including some extremely serious unfounded allegations of misconduct. School has been really proactive and issued big sanctions but hasn't stopped it fully yet. TikTok have a lot to answer for in my view."

Clearly, this trend is having damaging consequences for teachers across the country.

Education unions and the government have issued statements in response. Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the union was "deeply concerned" about the number of offensive and defamatory videos targeting school staff, and said that some "make highly insulting and unfounded allegations and contain homophobic abuse".

The government said that "it is never acceptable for anyone to harass or intimidate teachers and other education staff. Any instance of online abuse is abhorrent, and online criminal attacks should be immediately reported to the police."

Reporting students to the police is something no teacher would ever do lightly, but it's clear that in these circumstances, action should be taken. So, what exactly should a teacher do if they have been the victim of an abusive TikTok video?

1. Don't ban the tech

Dr Holly Powell-Jones is the founder of Online Media Law, and is online-law leader for the Global Equality Collective. She says the first thing teachers and leaders should do is to resist the urge to ban technology.

"I've seen a lot of teachers and others calling for phones to be banned from schools, and to stop children having accounts. I think that's a bit of a knee-jerk reaction, because actually, technology can be a really positive and important thing for young people," she says.

2. Use a triage system 

Instead, teachers should first look to assess how serious the offence is. Here, a triage system is really helpful, explains Powell-Jones. It doesn't need to be complicated, and can be as simple as a traffic light system. Powell-Jones has previously explained how such a system might work in an article for TES.

In a nutshell, the approach involves identifying whether an online threat should be classed as red for criminal or serious safeguarding risk; orange for risk of legal action; yellow for an ethical, policy or reputational matter; and green for "low risk" (no action needed).

Each of those levels should have a different response. If it's red, and safety is at risk, or you suspect someone is in immediate danger, you need to ring 999 or 101. If it's orange, you should discuss with leaders or staff whether it's right to pursue legal action. If it's yellow, the issue might not need police involvement or legal advice, but nonetheless require some action. If it's green, no action needs to be taken.

In the case of TikTok videos, teachers should be aware that they can go to the police, says Powell-Jones.

"If it is something at the criminal level – harassment, grossly offensive, indecent, obscene, assault, threats of violence – you do have a right to inform the police about it," she says.

"You don't have to go to the police. But I think for some people, it does help and a lot of people don't know that they can actually go to the police [for things that] happened online. If you are a victim of crime, you might want to go to the police because it can help to get things sorted more quickly.

"From what I've seen, in some instances, some videos might fall into hate crime territory as well. If the messages are really bad, and motivated by hostility around race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or transgender status, it is a hate crime."

If a teacher is unsure whether or not videos do class as a criminal offence, Powell-Jones recommends looking at the Crown Prosecutors Service's guidelines on prosecuting cases involving social media. This is particularly helpful if you do report the videos to the police, and they don't take it seriously, she says, because you can directly cite from the guidelines.

Glitch UK is also a really helpful website, she says. They have a template (accessible here) for making a record of online abuse that details the key information you need to log: which account posted it, the time and date, and the impact it has had on you.

This last point is crucial, she adds: "Often with these offences, the line between whether it constitutes an offence or not depends quite a lot on the victim impact. It's very important to kind of keep a record of that evidence as well because that might be the difference between it becoming an offence or not."

And of course, schools need to use their own disciplinary systems to sanction children, whether they be suspensions or exclusions, she says.

3. Get legal support

If the videos are of a defamatory nature, and they cause serious harm to a teacher's reputation, staff might want to seek legal support, Powell-Jones says. Here, the Internet Law Centre is a great place to start: they are specialist social media lawyers, and will be able to help teachers in this area.

Powell-Jones also recommends getting in touch with your teaching union, who should be able to offer support.

4. Report to TikTok

Although many teachers have said TikTok has been unresponsive when they've raised the videos directly with them, Powell-Jones encourages teachers to continue to report them.

"It's important to report things anyway," she says. "Get your peers, fellow teachers and school leaders to report them as well because the more reports made about a piece of content, the higher up the agenda it goes."

She also recommends reporting the videos to the website UK Safer Internet Centre. 

5. Ask police to come in and speak to students 

It's important to educate students about the consequences of their behaviour online – and if you're worried that teaching staff won't be taken seriously, Powell-Jones suggests asking the police to come in and give a talk.

"I'm certainly not in favour of criminalising children for online content and most teachers wouldn't want that either, but I think it can be useful to involve police because it can help on the education points at times," she says. "Sometimes kids don't take it very seriously if their teachers or their parents tell them not to do something, but actually the police coming in and speaking to pupils can have a bit more of a hard-hitting effect."

She says teachers should use real case studies with pupils: show them instances where online abuse has resulted in a six-month prison sentence, for example. And if schools don't want to involve the police, but are unsure of delivering law education themselves, Powell-Jones recommends inviting someone like herself into school to deliver it.

"Often schools will have tried a softer approach and actually, they need someone to come in and talk about criminal law and social media. Often when social media is covered in schools, it's more about how a young person could be a victim of crime online, but it's important to tell them they might – inadvertently – be a perpetrator of a crime," she says.

6. Educate parents

It's not just the students who need to be educated, but the parents, too, she adds.

"Sometimes when I do my workshops, kids say to me, 'I don't think that could be illegal.' And when I ask why not, they say things like 'my dad posts stuff like that' or 'my uncle always says things like that' or 'my grandma shares that sort of stuff'. Parents evenings are a great opportunity to educate parents, too – and that can be in person, or hosted online," she says.

This article was originally published by TES and is republished here with their kind permission. You can read the original article here, written by TES’s Schools and Colleges Content Producer, Kate Parker

Dr Holly Powell-Jones completed a PhD at City, University of London on the topic of youth understandings of risk and responsibility online. Alongside her Online Media Law business, she also teaches media courses and masterclasses at the University