The Government has intervened after teachers were subjected to abuse in TikTok videos.
More than 50 reports of staff suffering “disgraceful abuse” through messages and imagery posted on the social media platform have been received by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).
The posts are “often defamatory and offensive” and some are homophobic, the headteachers’ union has said.
Academies minister Baroness Barran said she is “deeply concerned by the abhorrent abuse” and the Department for Education (DfE) is engaging with TikTok on the steps it is taking to address the issue.
School leaders’ unions have called on TikTok to remove the posts swiftly and prevent “offensive and abusive” material from being uploaded in the first place.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of ASCL, said: “Over the past couple of weeks, school staff have suffered disgraceful abuse through messages and imagery posted on the social media platform TikTok.
“We do not know how widespread this is but we have received over 50 reports, and we suspect there are many more.
“These posts are often defamatory and offensive, and some are homophobic. Schools tell us that they have asked TikTok to remove them but TikTok has often failed to act despite these posts clearly breaching the platform’s community guidelines.
“This material is extremely distressing for the staff who are targeted, and the young people who are posting it are involved in behaviour which could lead to them being excluded from school and, in extreme cases, being the subject of a police investigation.”
Mr Barton said the union has written to TikTok to request a meeting about the issue and it has been raised with the governments in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
He added that TikTok has said it is investigating the issue and is using a combination of technologies and moderation teams to identify and remove content or accounts that violate its community guidelines.
It told ASCL it has already acted against a large number of accounts.
Mr Barton said: “This in our view reinforces the urgent need for regulation of social media platforms.
“Social media platforms should be legally responsible for ensuring they have processes in place which prevent offensive and abusive material from being posted in the first place.”
I am deeply concerned by the abhorrent abuse some school and college staff are facing on TikTok. Social media companies need to take action against harmful content and my department is engaging with TikTok on the steps they are taking to address the issue. @tiktok_uk
— Diana Barran (@dianabarran) November 10, 2021
Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “TikTok and other social media companies must step up and take far greater responsibility for the content hosted on their platforms.
“The racist and homophobic abuse against school staff in some TikTok videos is entirely unacceptable, yet there appears a worrying lack of urgency and priority given to removing inappropriate and distressing posts.
“If they are unwilling to adequately police content themselves, then we would encourage government to take steps to intervene on behalf of the victims of abusive content.
“No company should be allowed to profit from the misery of others.”
Baroness Barran said on Twitter: “Social media companies need to take action against harmful content and my department is engaging with TikTok on the steps they are taking to address the issue.”
A Government spokeswoman said: “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.
“We are engaging with TikTok on the steps being taken by them to address this issue involving teachers.
“We are clear that social media companies need to take action against harmful content on their platforms and we are introducing laws which will usher in a new era of accountability for these social media companies.”
A TikTok spokeswoman said: “At TikTok, we take all reports of hate speech or bullying and harassment extremely seriously.
“Our Community Guidelines make clear that we do not tolerate content that contains bullying or harassment, statements targeting an individual, or hateful speech or behaviour, and we remove content that violates these guidelines.”