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Like A Puppy Versus A Lion: A Mother’s Cyberbullying Nightmare With Instagram

David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
A mother spent more than a year in a maddening loop from Instagram, to her school, to the police, and back to Instagram, trying to get the social media network to delete an account she said was bullying her son.

Sarah’s son came home from high school more than a year ago upset about being bullied.

“He came in tears, (saying) ‘they’re calling me a name and someone’s impersonating me,’’ she said in an interview last month.

But the name-calling didn’t happen in the hallway or even in-person. Instead someone created an Instagram account online using a taunting nickname, according to Sarah. That’s when her “nightmare with Instagram” began.

St. Louis Public Radio is not using the family’s real names to protect their privacy.

Bullying among youth is increasingly taking place online. The anonymity of a borderless internet makes it hard for parents, schools, and even police to find — and stop — a cyberbully.

The account posted photos of Sarah’s son, whom we’re calling Elijah, from a health class anti-drug video, implying he smoked pot. Others were homophobic or perverse. Sarah called Instagram but only got an automated message. The forms she filled out on the tech giant’s help page went unanswered, making her feel helpless and outmatched.

“It’s just like you bring a puppy and you put, what, a lion in front of him?” she said.

Instagram deleted a few individual posts implying Elijah was a terrorist last fall, but the account stayed up, racking up almost 300 followers. Sarah grew frustrated with the lack of response from Instagram and went to Parkway School District officials and even the local police.

Chesterfield’s police department is investigating the report but subpoenas from internet providers can be slow to come. And they only offer clues.

“Online, if you know what you’re doing, it’s easier and easier to remain anonymous,” said Detective Tim Turntine.

While law enforcement officials have more tools than members of the public to track down online culprits, educators face the same David and Goliath scenario.

“The one mechanism that’s missing from social media today would be a closer connection with the education community,” said Jason Rooks, the technology director for Parkway schools. “Because there are a number of hurdles that we have to go through to get something that’s clearly malicious, clearly having a negative impact on our students, taken off a social media website.”

When parents discover malicious content online, Rooks said there’s little he can do except tell them how to contact platforms and file complaints.

National bullying experts say Sarah and Elijah’s case is unusual for how long it’s gone on, but their frustration is not.

“It can be a gauntlet in some cases when dealing with this stuff,” said Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. “It would be great if these companies had a contact person, had a phone number.”

With millions of users, however, and likely tens of thousands of complaints every day, Patchin concedes it’s unrealistic.

Listen: St. Louis Public Radio's Ryan Delaney and Lindsay Toler discuss the issue of cyberbullying on Friday's St. Louis on the Air. Tina Meier, founder of the Megan Meier Foundation, joined the conversation by phone. Her 13-year-old daughter Megan took her own life in 2006 after she was bullied online. The foundation was established to wage a campaign against cyberbullying. 

Elizabeth Englander, a bullying researcher who directs the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, said while bullying at school often gets a quick response, the slow timetable for removing bullying online is especially vexing for parents.

“Physical altercations are relatively easy to spot and comparatively easy to stop,” Englander said. “That doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do though” in response to cyberbullying.

Englander recommends parents support their kids and guide them through a difficult time.

The Instagram account impersonating Elijah was removed a few weeks ago after inappropriate posts piled up, a spokesperson at the company said in an email. The social media platform decides how quickly to shut down an account based on the severity of posts and the user’s history on the network, according to the spokesperson.

Sarah spent the past year in a maddening loop — Instagram, to the school, to the police, and back to Instagram — trying to get the account deleted and source found.

Neither Sarah nor the school know what exactly got through to Instagram and compelled it to delete the account. Who created it is a bigger mystery.

“I keep telling my son, “Hey, there will be a solution,’” Sarah said, willing herself to keep faith, despite her worries that another account will pop up in its place.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

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Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.