Victims are being named and sexually humiliated online.
The girl in one of the photographs cannot be much more than 13 years old. She smiles self-consciously at the camera, blonde hair loose, casual in a vest top. Beneath the image — posted on Instagram — is a caption too explicit to repeat in this newspaper claiming she has been sexually promiscuous.
“I was in school when it happened,” the girl told me. “I was 13 or 14 at the time. Nothing written about me on that account was true.”
Other photographs posted on similar accounts show teenage girls in their underwear. Beneath these images the full names of the girls are shown with links to their social media accounts. Overwhelmingly the teenagers in the photographs are girls and aged 13-16. The most explicit material constitutes child pornography.
The name for this insidious new trend — a combination of cyber-bullying, revenge porn and creepshots — is “baiting” or “baiting out”. It involves pictures of teenagers being put on social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram without their knowledge or consent in a deliberate attempt to humiliate them sexually.
Some of the images uploaded are of a sexual nature. Some are selfies — taken from teenage girls’ Facebook accounts — with captions making sexually degrading claims about them. As the term baiting suggests, the intent is to harass. The people photographed are deliberately not kept anonymous — “naming and shaming” is encouraged.
“Want revenge on an ex or just a slag?” one account asks, suggesting that viewers send in photographs and “tag” or link them to the social media accounts of the girls who are pictured.
Baiting accounts are often very localised so you can see people who live, go to school or work in a neighbourhood. On Twitter there have been accounts with names such as “Essex Bait Slags” and “Baitout Bath”. On Instagram there is “Baitout Holyhead” and “Baitout Birmingham”. This makes it intentionally easier to identify the young women pictured.
On YouTube, young “presenters” make videos in which they take to the streets where they live, asking others to name and shame people who they think are promiscuous. Some shout initials at the camera; others give the full names of girls they call “skets”, which is slang for “slut”. The videos, filmed primarily in London, Telford and Birmingham, have had hundreds of thousands of views.
One girl, who asked not to be named, was called a sket in a baiting video when she was 19. She said: “People were messaging me about it before I even saw it. It went around my college and everywhere else. I was worried what my friends would think initially. I was lucky enough that everyone that knew me knew it wasn’t true.
“I didn’t understand what I’d done to deserve it. It’s embarrassing and humiliating. I was victimised out of spite.”
Lauren Seager-Smith, chief executive of the children’s anti-bullying charity Kidscape, said: “The extent of this issue is difficult to measure because many young people aren’t willing to admit that it’s happened to them. From talking to young people, however, it’s apparent that most of them know someone who has experienced it.”
In a way, baiting is the millennial version of playground bullying, she added: “When I was in school in the 1980s and 1990s you’d get gossip about people having done something at a party but it would fizzle out.
“The difference now is this constant 24-hour churn of comment, information and the potential to reach a very large group very quickly. And there’s the ability to share images and videos.
“Also the difference with online content is it stays available for a long time.”
Rhiannon Sawyer, a service manager at the Children’s Society, works with young people facing harassment from baiting sites. “The act itself is horrific and the impact on the child can be very far-reaching,” she said.
“Not just their entire school, but their entire community might know about it. They can endure people in the street, who they don’t know, shouting at them for months, maybe years. The bullying to which children are subjected after this kind of incident is appalling. They might be bullied sexually by people saying: she’s a slut. It can lead them to self-harm, take drugs, go missing or even commit suicide.”
Children affected — boys as well as girls — often avoid school and become isolated. The impact of online sexual shaming was explored in the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, which told the story of Hannah, who takes her own life after bullying which starts as a result of this kind of sexual exposure.
Baiting can leave children at risk of further sexual violence. “One of the really shocking things that can happen is in other people’s eyes the child-victim’s boundaries become blurred,” Sawyer explained.
She worked in one school where a girl aged 14 or 15 had a sexually explicit photograph of her uploaded online. “Everyone at the school was aware. You can’t imagine the extent of the bullying.”
Other pupils continually made sexual comments to the girl. Any reference to sex in the classroom was brought back to her: “It was constant bullying and comments of a sexual nature. You can imagine the impact on her.”
Later Sawyer became aware that the girl was targeted by an older man who coerced her into a sexually exploitative relationship with him. “It’s often the case that although the original baiting image or account is set up by a child, there are adult perpetrators who will take advantage of it,” she said.
“The children doing it probably don’t realise that risk or the impact it can have. There have been suicides linked to this kind of cyber-bullying.”
Seager-Smith said: “A lot of the discussion is around what to do if this happens but we don’t hear enough about the emotional fallout for the children involved. It can be catastrophic.”
Something that an adult might be able to cope with can prove “overwhelming” for a child.