How playground gossip went viral

Forget bitching behind the bike sheds. Today’s teens are making snide comments online – and even targeting teachers. But when does banter become dangerous bullying? Tanith Carey investigates.

At first, mum-of-three Jo Bailey, 43, was amused when she heard from other parents about an Instagram account which mocked the strict rules at her 14-year-old son Jamie’s Midlands comprehensive. Initially, the images – making fun of the school dinners, teachers’ pet sayings and strict rules about how to queue in the lunch hall – didn’t surprise her. ‘These days, children think they can say what they like online. They feel untouchable,’ Jo says.

playground gossip memes
These memes are typical of the ones posted on the school gossip accounts. Image: Sofia Ayuso/Lemonade Illustration Agency

But then, as she scrolled through other social-media-platform pages linked to the school, she came across a worrying account. The creator, apparently a younger child acting alone, clearly harboured serious grudges against several staff members. The posts included messages such as, ‘I hope the school gets bombed’, and it named teachers who they said should get ‘stabbed’, ‘raped’ or ‘tortured’.

‘I was shocked,’ recalls Jo. ‘There was even a poll asking if other pupils agreed, though the results weren’t published. It had been up for a few weeks.’ Because these online comments didn’t have a large number of views and hadn’t been reported by the school, nothing was done about the content and, at the time of writing, they were still visible to anyone knowing where to search.

Of course, pupils have always let off steam about school. But for Gen Z – for whom social media is second nature – venting isn’t limited to gossiping with their peers behind the bike sheds. Now, their thoughts have the potential to go viral.

Welcome to the world of secondary school gossip accounts on Instagram, Facebook and TikTok. Also known as ‘spilling the tea’ and ‘shade accounts’, mostly they feature memes – humorous images or clips overlaid with jokes and captions, designed to make fun of school life, teachers and rules.

Though often dressed up as a harmless laugh, some veer into dangerous territory. These include memes calling staff ‘paedos’, accusing them of ignoring bullying or of misappropriating school funds.

Memes can also turn misogynistic with boys referring to girls as ‘thots’, a new term for slut. Some pages feature anonymous confessions about school liaisons, often sexual, leading commentators to speculate on the identities. There are also tales of in-school drug taking. It seems such pages have come to prominence in recent times as young people revel in the novelty of being back together after months of remote learning. Gossip accounts are usually run by one or two rebellious, older students who pride themselves on having the most biting sense of humour. And for slickly run private schools, such pages have also become a weapon for students to punch holes in brochure-friendly images.

playground gossip meme
These memes are typical of the ones posted on the school gossip accounts. Image: Sofia Ayuso/Lemonade Illustration Agency

After attending two impressive open days, Suzanne Cooper was convinced she had found the perfect boarding school for her 14-year-old son Ben. The glossy prospectus promised that the school, with its desirable location in the South of England, could offer her son not just a top-drawer education but also turn him into a creative, enquiring and well-rounded young person.

But once term had started, Suzanne stumbled upon another side to the school when she tried to google the half-term pick-up arrangements. This time, it was written by the pupils.

‘It was an Instagram account, also under the school’s name, where some students had posted memes about how bored and unmotivated they were, how they’d evaded the teachers’ attempts to catch them taking drugs and how they’d shown up to assembly still drunk from the night before,’ says Suzanne, 54, from Hertfordshire.

‘At first, I’d hoped it was an exaggeration by some of the older pupils but now Ben has been there a couple of years, it feels worryingly accurate. The more I got to know the school, the more I realised that it does have a drug problem – so much so that at one point the head sent in sniffer dogs.

‘I gather the school knows about the page, though not who’s behind it. But they can’t get it removed because it doesn’t name anyone specifically and it’s not extreme enough to break any rules.

‘Ben thinks it’s hilarious and everyone at the school follows it. But I think it normalises drug-taking and disrespect towards staff, as well as making the school look terrible.’

playground gossip meme
These memes are typical of the ones posted on the school gossip accounts. Image: Sofia Ayuso/Lemonade Illustration Agency

The first Sandra Joseph knew about the meme account at her 16-year-old daughter Flo’s girls’ school was when she got a letter from the head just before the first lockdown. ‘It was sent out to all the parents and asked us to check our daughters’ phones for signs they’d been looking at the Instagram page or posting anything on it,’ recalls Sandra, 54, a designer who lives in West London.

‘As the account in question was on a public setting, it could be seen by anyone. I had a look for myself and there were the usual jokes about school meals. It did mention teachers a lot, but in a mocking rather than brutal way.

‘My first feeling was relief that the girls weren’t targeting each other – but I could see why some of the staff might be upset. There were unflattering pictures and comments making fun of them. Things like how the chemistry teacher would explode if pupils didn’t wear their goggles, how the maths teacher could never stick to the point and how you had to be half dead to see the nurse. To be honest, I thought some were quite funny, though I didn’t say that to Flo.’

For Sandra, the incident sums up the mixed messages for teenagers these days. ‘On one hand, the girls are encouraged to speak up for themselves, be creative and have an opinion. But when they do, they are in trouble.

‘However, I imagine it’s very difficult if you’re a teacher who gets singled out and you have to teach classes, not knowing which pupils are making fun of you. We laughed at the staff, too, when we were their age, but they never knew about it. We’d draw caricatures in our rough books but only your friends saw them. Now the mockery is seen by everyone, including parents of prospective pupils.

‘Flo’s school is high-achieving, meaning the head is fiercely protective of its reputation. I can see why they got a bit heavy-handed but the identities of the girls behind it were never found out and they stopped posting.’

playground gossip meme
These memes are typical of the ones posted on the school gossip accounts. Image: Sofia Ayuso/Lemonade Illustration Agency

While pupils might claim it’s only a bit of fun, being targeted can be deeply traumatic for teachers, says Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. He speaks of the ‘huge distress’ that can be caused and goes as far as to say that it can ‘lead those affected to consider leaving the profession’.

Lexi Kerr, 27, a teacher at a sixth-form centre in the East of England, has seen the disruption such meme pages can cause. After overhearing some of the Year 12 students talking about a college gossip page, she decided to investigate. ‘Rather than targeting other pupils, it was teacher-centred,’ she says. ‘At this age, teens think staff are robots who don’t have any feelings and that we deserve it. For example, last year one of the teachers had to isolate due to Covid and some students wrote nasty comments about how he was toxic and infected. When he was able to come back to college, some refused to go into his classroom. These pages can be a distraction for young people but a wholly negative experience for those who appear in them.’

Yet beyond that, Lexi also sees the school gossip page as opening up an opportunity to talk to teenagers about appropriate online behaviour. ‘I think students need to be educated about the possible negative effects on the mental health of the people they mention.’

Leon Hady of Guide Education – which provides teacher training – says such content poses a huge challenge for school leaders and they can’t afford to ignore it. ‘These pages are time-consuming to deal with and make a difficult job harder. They are a nightmare for teachers to police. Finding out which pupils are behind them is like chasing ghosts. Kids may use VPNs [virtual private networks] to hide who they are. They could be using the phone of another pupil or even one belonging to an adult.’

If threats start to be exchanged between pupils on the social-media pages, Leon says the police have to be called in order to prevent the possibility of violence breaking out away from school.

playground gossip meme
These memes are typical of the ones posted on the school gossip accounts. Image: Sofia Ayuso/Lemonade Illustration Agency

However, provided they don’t encourage abusive or criminal behaviour, such pages can actually have a positive effect, says clinical psychologist Emma Citron. ‘These forums give pupils a sense of control in a place where they spend a large part of their lives, yet feel they have little say. Gossip generally serves the purpose of social cohesion and the sharing of common opinions, which increases social bonding.’

When faced with inappropriate or offensive online gossip, Andy Phippen, professor of digital rights at Bournemouth University, advises that there may be little the police can do. ‘The truth is that, if you put a microphone around the lunch hall to pick up what pupils say, you’d hear far worse. When it comes to the pages, it requires a conversation with the students and the pages to be reported to the platform upon which it was posted.’

If, however, a pupil is making a specific allegation about criminal behaviour then it may become a police matter. ‘When senior leadership in school is challenged, often the first response is to shut down criticism and protect the school’s reputation rather than investigate whether students have a point.

‘You only have to look at why Everyone’s Invited [the forum established by young people in 2020 to expose rape culture in schools, which now has thousands of testimonies] was set up. Pupils felt their experiences of sexual assault and rape were not being taken seriously – no one could accuse Everyone’s Invited of being a gossip page.’

Looking back, Suzanne says discovering her son’s school meme page makes her wish she hadn’t fallen quite so hard for the prospectus photos of eager-beaver pupils in the school library. Particularly given the £32,000-a-year fees.

She is, however, in a tricky position because only a handful of schools offer the type of specialist tuition that Ben is receiving. ‘I have left him there for now because he’s happy and the teaching works for him. But it’s certainly made me nervous and worried about the running of the school and what Ben could be getting up to there in the future.

‘If I’d seen then how some of the pupils view the school from the inside, I would have certainly asked some more searching questions.’

Tanith Carey is the author of What’s My Teenager Thinking? Practical Child Psychology For Modern Parents with Dr Angharad Rudkin, published by DK, price £16.99. To order a copy for £14.44 until 27 March, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.

Names of pupils, parents and teachers have been changed.