Victoria Tully, co-headteacher at Fulham Cross girls’ school, a state secondary in west London, had no idea that her new first years had invited people from outside the school to join their WhatsApp group.
She only found out when a “strange man” shared “horrible pictures” 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 they see social media as “benign” and exciting. She has learned that all too often it is not.
“As a school we are powerless to track down a man from a phone number,” she said. “This is low down 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 WhatsApp has a minimum age in the UK of 16 so their kids should not be on it.
She is not alone. Schools across the country are grappling with the issue of how to deal with inappropriate messages, image sharing, adult content and bullying on social media. But Tully says in her case the correspondence had little impact.
She explains that many of her pupils’ parents do not read English well, making it hard to monitor messages, and the slang their children use online is often “impenetrable” anyway. But more importantly, she feels many are not seeing the dangers.
“Many parents aren’t aware of what is going on until something bad happens involving their child,” she said.
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “This is a terrible reminder of the harms that can be caused both mentally and physically by young people accessing unmediated content.”
Managing the fallout from social media is now a massive issue for her members. “When it goes wrong, social media intensifies the angst of being an adolescent,” Bousted said.
She is concerned that viewing pornography online distorts boys’ views of what sex is like and feeds the sexual harassment that their research has shown is “rife” in schools.
“The pressure to conform to standards of attractiveness that are the result of manipulated images is just huge,” she added. “And bullying is so easy to hide online. There’s no escape from any of it. No safe space.”
Many schools now ban phones, either in lessons or all day, but Bousted says some find this difficult to enforce and they all know the problem is “far wider” than this.
Tully says her school works hard to educate pupils about the risks of social media and issues such as bullying online. But mediating between pupils who have posted hurtful comments, or pointedly removed one person from a chat group, still takes up far too much staff time.“It’s not our job to stop horrible messages outside school, especially when they are sent at 3am and the parents let them have their phones in bed,” she said. “But when you’ve got a crying 11- or 12-year-old in front of you, of course you have to get involved.”
A teacher at a secondary state school in Cardiff, who spoke to the Observer on condition of anonymity, described WhatsApp as “poisonous” for teenagers and said parents of younger adolescents should ban it.
“We have had students who have had death threats on WhatsApp outside school,” he said. “That has absolutely nothing to do with school and really it’s a police issue but they are under-resourced too. That’s why parents need to step in.”
He said much of what pupils are sharing on their phones is pornography. At his school a pornographic video with teachers’ heads super-imposed on to it did the rounds on TikTok. “The idea that schools can somehow police it all is just crazy,” he added. “We aren’t resourced for it and we haven’t had the training.”
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Nor is this an issue just affecting older secondary school children. The headteacher of a Church of England primary school in London, who asked not to be named, said children as young as seven or eight are being given phones and he is constantly waging war against abusive messages online.
“They use every swearword imaginable on WhatsApp,” he said. “We’ve had homophobic and racist abuse directed at a single child, fat shaming, threats of violence and insults about siblings with special educational needs.”
The headteacher regularly sends warnings to parents about WhatsApp safety and encourages them to report bullying or inappropriate content to him. In many cases, he says, this falls on closed ears. “The parents are addicted to social media themselves,” he said.
Recently a local man had a heart attack in the road near his school and the headteacher 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.
Molly Russell took her own life after viewing online images of self-harm and suicide. Photograph: Family handout/PA
“This guy looked like he would die – and parents were filming it,” he explained. “And these are the people I am relying on to help educate these kids about how to use their phones and what is appropriate.”
A spokesperson for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) said that it was “incredibly important” for parents to have “open and honest” conversations with their children about social media, so that they will talk to them if something bad happens. “We’ve got to be realistic and accept that even if parents set boundaries, children and teenagers will push them,” she said. “It’s about being engaged.”
But she insisted that neither parents nor schools could solve this on their own. The NSPCC wants ministers to bring back the online safety bill that was dropped from the legislative calendar in July to make room for a motion of no confidence in the government.
Sir Peter Wanless, the charity’s chief executive, said on Friday that the inquest verdict on 14-year-old Molly Russell, who took her own life after viewing thousands of Instagram images related to self-harm and suicide, “must be a turning point” and “further delay or watering down of the legislation that addresses preventable abuse of our children would be inconceivable to parents across the UK”.