Parent’s Guide to “Sockpuppets”

Imagine your teenager tweets something about #MeToo. Another Twitter user doesn’t like what your teenager tweeted. They send a nasty direct message. Suddenly, your teenager is inundated with harassing messages from a bunch of different users. They all look new and have the default silhouette avatar picture. It’s like your teenager is being attacked by dozens of users all at once.

Maybe. But maybe not. It could be that your teenager is just being cyberbullied by that first user who got mad. It’s just him and his sockpuppets.

What Is a Sockpuppet?

A sockpuppet—one word, not two—is another identity created by an Internet user in order to pretend to be multiple people online. For example, Twitter user @ExampleAccount might also create @ex574, @ea1829, and @acc29832. His primary account @ExampleAccount is his primary or “real” online identity. He uses it to interact with others as himself. But his sock puppets aren’t “real” in the sense that he uses them for something inauthentic.

Why?

Sockpuppets are used in a number of ways. One common reason is for someone to talk themselves up or seem more important or consequential than they really are. Someone may use their sockpuppets to like, share, retweet, upvote, or otherwise promote their “real” account.

Another big reason people use sockpuppets is to dominate online arguments and discussions. They can use multiple accounts to promote their own views. For example, an editor at the New Republic got in trouble for using sockpuppets to praise his own work and attack his critics. A prominent lawyer was sent to jail in part over using sockpuppets to harass rivals of his father, a famous historian. British writer R.J. Ellory got caught using sockpuppets to write positive reviews of his own books.

Harassment is a major use of sockpuppets. Making fake Facebook, Instagram, or Reddit accounts to harass other users is something cyberbullies may do. Twitter accounts that look brand new are infamous for their harassing behaviour. In fact, the reason Twitter no longer uses an egg as the avatar for new accounts is their association with harassing and trolling behaviour.

What Do You Do?

If your child or teenager is being harassed online and you suspect it’s actually just one person using sockpuppets, your first step is to report the behaviour. See this post for how to report on different popular platforms.

Most online platforms take reports of sockpuppetry seriously as it’s a major problem for them. It’s worthwhile to report because a site’s admins can detect someone using sockpuppets by checking IP addresses. Researchers are also developing tools to identify sockpuppets in other ways.

Beyond reporting, it’s also important to help your child understand what’s happening. Being attacked by a crowd or swarm of people is very distressing. But some of the sting of that experience can be taken away by understanding that there isn’t actually a crowd, just one very persistent cyberbully.

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A Parent’s Guide to Instagram

What does a parent need to know about Instagram? We’re going to tell you what it is, how kids and teens are using it, and how cyberbullying on Instagram works.

What Is Instagram?

Instagram is social media platform focused on pictures. Users post pictures, with captions and hashtags, for their followers to comment on or like. Accounts can be public or private. Public accounts can be viewed by anyone and private accounts can only be viewed by approved followers. It’s possible to search Instagram by hashtag. For example, searching for #beach will turn up lots of pictures of people at the beach.

Do Teenagers Use Instagram Differently From Adults?

Yes. An adult users might take a picture, think of a funny caption, and post it with a few relevant hashtags.

To a teenager, that would seem extremely lazy. Teenagers will typically take dozens of pictures, select the most flattering, and then edit before posting with a perfect pithy caption. This is usually done with the help of friends. Then, they’ll watch the likes and comments come in. At this point, they’ll start screencapping (that is, taking a picture of the screen) the comments. This is just in case one of their followers choses to delete what they said or if they say something mean.

If a post is underperforming, teenagers may choose to delete the post. However, others are undoubtedly screencapping posts, so deleting may be socially risky.

Want to hear three teens describe this process in their own words? Listen to the first ten minutes of this episode of This American Life.

What Is FOMO?

FOMO is “fear of missing out”. Instagram promotes a very curated image of someone’s lifestyle. If your child or teen sees lots of pictures of their peers doing stuff like wearing expensive brands, going on fun trips, and hanging out without your child or teen, they might experience FOMO. Research has linked social media use and FOMO to depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

It’s important to realize that what people post on social media, especially Instagram, is a highlight reel. It’s all the best, most curated parts of someone’s life. Your child or teen needs to learn that people don’t share the bad or boring parts of their lives and that comparing their whole life to someone else’s highlight reel won’t ever be satisfying.

Rinsta vs Finsta?

A common way to cyberbully on Instagram is by using a fake Instagram accounts. Often users will have two accounts: a “rinsta”, or a “real Instagram”, and the other is a “finsta”, or a “fake Instagram”.

A rinsta is the Instagram account that everyone knows about. It’s a teen’s public facing account, carefully curated to portray a certain public image. It is deeply filtered and thoroughly considered.

A finsta is an account meant only for close friends. It’s where teens can post stuff that’s silly, funny, mean, lazy, or just plain unfiltered. For example, on someone’s rinsta, a vacation pic might be a carefully selected, meticulously edited pool-side photo. However, on their finsta, they may post a picture of themselves getting knocked over by a wave. It’s silly and fun, but only entrusted to specific friends.

One thing non-teen readers are probably noting right now is that the two terms seem backward. Yet, teenage Instagram users consider the curated account the “real” on and the more authentic one “fake”.

Cyberbullying and Finstas

While finstas often are used for fun self-expression, they can also become a venue for cyberbullying others. By only including their close friends in their finsta, teens are trying to limit the chances of getting cyberbullied. However, this can be circumvented if one of their friends screencaps something and shares with a non-member. Also, these small circles of friends can become venues where they post mean things about non-members, a bit like a digital version of the burn book from Mean Girls.

The Bottom Line

If all this stuff seems complicated, don’t worry, it is. Instagram is a major part of teen life. It can come with a lot of baggage, including self-image, in-groups versus out-groups, and public identity. The first step to helping your child or teen with these issues is to understand the platform itself.

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