Another week, another wave of social media ‘challenges’ tempting students on TikTok and putting school administrators on high alert from coast to coast.
With October’s dare (‘slap a teacher, then run off’ while someone films it) several notches higher on the disturbing scale than September’s (vandalize restrooms), we convened a panel of education leaders for a roundtable discussion about the toll the worst of social media is taking on schools.
If you could have a one-on-one with the head of TikTok — and/or other social media companies — what message would you want to convey first and foremost?
Says Centennial teacher and former Champaign City Councilman GREG STOCK: “Right now, in the midst of a pandemic, the majority of our restrooms don’t have soap because the dispensers got ripped off in last month’s challenge, as is the case all over the country.
“It’s irresponsible for TikTok or any other company to openly encourage such deviant and disruptive behavior.
“Teaching is harder than it has ever been, and the teacher shortage is very real. Please use your platform to help teachers educate, not to provide one more distraction or one more reason to reconsider their career choice.
“How about a TikTok challenge where you thank a teacher or staff member?”
Says Danville Education Association President DERRICE HIGHTOWER: "Children are impressionable. They are looking for adults to guide them. Knowing that their platforms promote violence, vandalism and the like is disgusting.
"At the same time, it is important for parents to be active monitors of what their children are viewing on social media. Most social media is geared toward adults and way too many children have access to topics that are above their comprehension."
Says Bismarck-Henning Superintendent SCOTT WATSON: “Why would TikTok allow videos where people are vandalizing or permitting illegal acts? Makes no sense.”
Says St. Joseph-Ogden Superintendent BRIAN BROOKS: “There needs to be some type of checks and balances from these social media companies on things like this, in my opinion. This isn’t what TikTok or any other social media platform is intended for, but revenue for these companies seems to get in the way of people doing the right thing.
“There is nothing good that comes from this. The repercussions for the students will be strong — I’m guessing at most schools — if they were to follow through, on top of the fact that it is a criminal act.
“The fallout for any teacher/staff member who could be a victim in one of these situations could be huge, as well.”
Says Oakwood High Principal JOHN ODLE: “These challenges have costs associated with the students’ destruction of school property. Schools are aging, and the funding has been manipulated in the past to encourage schools to consolidate.
“The schools that are left have funding or grants that are designated for specific educational programs and cannot be used for school repairs or new buildings, which makes these destructive practices more devastating.”
Says GARY LEWIS, regional superintendent for the area that includes Champaign and Ford counties: “There are people using their platforms to cause chaos, damage and physical and psychological harm to others. It should be their job to understand how their platforms are being used, for both good and bad.
“That being said, the recent TikTok craze also involves individuals making choices, and those individuals are responsible for their own actions.”
Says Bement Interim Superintendent SHEILA GREENWOOD: “I would let them know the power that they wield with our children. They have the ability to change the course of history if they would only embrace positive impacts and positive initiatives.
Children don’t ride bikes, play at the park or shoot hoops. They sit on their phones with every spare minute of their lives. One of the saddest things is that their parents are doing the same thing, neglecting the opportunity to interact with their children.
“We are allowing digital devices to raise and influence our children like never before. Bement had damage to our restrooms during a cross-country invitational meet a few weeks ago, and we believe it has a direct connection to the TikTok ‘vandalizing bathrooms’ prompt.”
Says Danville’s JENNIFER WOODROW, a 2015 Illinois State Teacher of the Year finalist: “I would like to remind them of the incredible influence, both positive and negative, that they have on all of us, especially our students.
"I would ask them to be mindful of that and act responsibly as we navigate a very difficult world.”
Says Urbana Middle School Principal JOE WIEMELT: “I’d remind them how powerful their platform is on the lives of our children, their development and their well being. I’d ask them to redirect this irresponsible trend into something positive, putting out a TikTok challenge that promotes kindness, respect and support of each other.
“Maybe a ‘sit by someone who is sitting by themselves at lunch’ challenge, a ‘do something positive for your school community’ challenge, a ‘volunteer your time to help clean your school’ challenge.”
Says Georgetown-Ridge Farm High Principal KEVIN THOMAS: “You have a social platform that can change the world in a positive way. That should be your focus.”
What’s your level of concern that students will act on these so-called challenges?
BRIAN BROOKS says: “This falls in the category of ‘I would hope most students would never do something like this,’ but times are different right now.
“People are on edge and not thinking about the ramifications of their actions. They see things happen on social media daily and almost get desensitized to how those actions affect other human beings, as well as the consequences that could come with their actions. These are criminal actions, not just a minor infraction in a student handbook.
“I’m certainly not a psychologist, psychiatrist or any type of doctor, but you read about research out there that states that young people’s minds cannot handle everything being thrown at them through social media. Which can lead to some very bad decision-making, with lifelong consequences.”
Says Salt Fork Superintendent PHIL COX: “Unfortunately, we had a couple of kids that did some damage to a restroom based on the September TikTok challenge. As a result, I sent an email to parents and students on Wednesday about the alleged October challenge.
“While I seriously doubt our students would ever slap one of our staff members, I felt we needed to be proactive and address with students and parents how serious this issue is. Sometimes, students view things as a prank or a joke and do not fully realize the serious consequences that can result from their actions.”
Says Mahomet-Seymour Superintendent LINDSEY HALL: “The vast, vast majority of kids will know this is garbage and just stupid. I believe in our kids — I’ve seen so many great things from them that I know they value a school that is safe, clean, free from vandalism and violence and a place where we care about one another.”
Says Oakland Superintendent LANCE LANDECK: “Lately, I have seen some new positive TikTok challenges come out in response to the recent challenges that have involved vandalizing schools or assaulting teachers.
“The new challenges I have seen have a monthly theme such as ‘perform a cool handshake with a teacher,’ ‘sing happy birthday to someone at your school’ and ‘thank someone who had a positive impact on you.’”
Says KATHI GRIFFIN, president of the Illinois Education Association: “Some social media challenges can do great things, such as the water bucket challenge to raise awareness and money to fight a disease. But challenges like this actually harm people — people who care about students and their success — and they are also illegal.
We’re counting on kids, and those who care for them, to rely on all the lessons we’ve learned over the past 18 months about grace and kindness to skip this challenge and wait for one that provides a chance to do something good for others rather than possibly causing harm and getting in trouble.”
Says DeLand-Weldon Superintendent AMANDA GEARY: “I personally feel that our students at DW respect our school, teachers, custodians and themselves at a higher level. When someone acts on one of these TikTok challenges, they also need to realize they are doing more than ‘making people laugh.’
“I guess that is what they think they are doing, but they are committing an act of vandalism. That can come with bigger consequences.”
DERRICE HIGHTOWER says: "Unfortunately, some vandalism has occurred due to the recent TikTok challenges. As far as the October challenge, I believe schools are putting an extreme importance on conveying to students that should they act on this, they will suffer from the consequences."
Says Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley High Principal CHRIS GARARD: “Fads come and go. Some are good, some are bad and some are just ridiculous.
"We concentrate our discussions on good vs. bad and right vs. wrong and hope our kids have a strong enough moral compass to know the difference.”
Says Blue Ridge Superintendent HILLARY STANIFER: “What comes to mind is a post that I saw on social media earlier today. It was from a teacher who challenged students to stand out for doing something good, rather than standing out for doing some type of vandalism or assault.
“That is where I choose to put my focus.”
How much more stressful or challenging has social media made the jobs of those in the education business?
LINDSEY HALL says: “Adults on social media are much more of a problem than kids. What has happened to decency toward others? It is not necessary to constantly share an opinion.
“We do deal with poor decision-making from our students once in awhile, but the misinformation, poor behavior and speculation I deal with from social media platforms is almost always from grown-ups.
“Recently, it was very disappointing to see misinformation about a situation at our high school that kept getting repeated, as well as targeted and inappropriate comments directed toward our staff. From community members. Awful.”
Says Monticello Superintendent VIC ZIMMERMAN: “Social media is the great equalizer. It can be used for good and for bad. Anyone with a cellphone now has a voice.
“It’s easy to sit in your basement and blast away negative comments and just as easy to create and post masterful music.
“I’m no fan of social media company censorship. We all have to be good consumers of social media.
“We teach our students to know the difference between right and wrong. They know that slapping a teacher or anyone else is wrong and will come with severe consequences.”
PHIL COX says: “The biggest issue we see too often is individuals griping on social media about a school-related issue rather than approaching us directly with their concerns.
“Often, a simple conversation is enough to clear up confusion or to address an issue. But when parents start with their complaints on social media, the issue is not resolved and is turned into a much bigger issue than it initially was.”
Says Unity Superintendent ANDY LARSON: “The ridiculousness of what is pushed out at times certainly complicates things for the administration, but we will handle things appropriately and will not tolerate anything that is disruptive to the education happening in the classroom.
“We have very supportive communities of our schools and will continue to focus our attention on all the positive things our students and teachers do.”
GREG STOCK says: “It has been a game-changer — and not in a good way. My career at Centennial literally began the same year that the internet was being connected, so I have been through it all.
“Smartphones have been a real stressor on most educators fighting the cellphone battles day in and day out.
“Social media has amplified every bit of school drama to new heights, making it so much harder to actually focus on school and not get caught up in the drama and diversions that social media creates.”
SCOTT WATSON says: “People want to record you any time there’s an incident, just to put you in the crosshairs. It’s the worst thing that has happened to society, in my opinion.”
BRIAN BROOKS says: “My personal opinion is that social media has added stress to all of our lives. Not just school administrators. Adults and kids alike.
“Anyone has access now to reach every person across the globe with about any message they want to put out there through social media.
“People have lost the ability to decipher what is actually true and what is not true in terms of what they read. They see it on social media and assume it is true.
“You look at the divide right now in our country on a number of very serious topics, and it could easily be argued that much of it comes from social media. Primarily adults on many of those topics.
“However, as a school administrator and directly related to your question, it does cause stress — and not just from the potential actions of students from a TikTok challenge.
“We also stress a lot about the worry of how our students are doing mentally from everything they are dealing with tied to social media.
“You can visually see when a kid has been physically hurt. You can’t always see when kids are struggling mentally. That can be hidden much easier than a physical injury.
“The things that we aren’t aware of that can put kids in harm’s way are the things that probably provide the most stress to administrators, and mental health tied to social media would be an item that falls into that category.
“Once we are aware of something, we can put measures in place to address the concerns or notify the appropriate people to help those students.”
Says Arcola Superintendent TOM MULLIGAN: “I have been in education for over 30 years, and there have been many, many innovations during that time.
“Schools must be willing to adapt to new innovations by being willing to change procedures and expectations to work with the school community.
“I think social media has made true, authentic two-way communication more important than ever. If there is a void in communication, social media will quickly fill that void.”
GARY LEWIS says: “Social media is only as useful as you make it. It can be a great tool to have, but as we have seen lately, it has the ability to cause harm, as well.”
Do you worry about nonsense like this — on top of a pandemic — leading teachers to say enough’s enough and find other work?
Says JASON LEAHY, executive director of the Illinois Principals Association: “Our concerns about people leaving the profession predate the pandemic. On top of this, we have fewer people choosing to do this important work.
“Take school leadership, for example. We have experienced an over 80 percent drop in those completing all the requirements needed to be a principal over the last decade.
“So, layer on top of pre-COVID-19 pressures the challenges that have come with trying to educate kids during the pandemic, the vitriol and attacks that educators have endured from some members of their communities, and now young people acting out inappropriately — and illegally — with the hope of going viral, and we are definitely concerned about losing even more good people.”
Says Champaign school board President AMY ARMSTRONG: “Social media’s influence and impact has been a challenge in our schools, long before there was a global pandemic and long before there was TikTok.
“This latest situation is just another example of why responsible use of social media is something that should be addressed in our schools as well as at home.
“It’s not just students who misuse it, but adults, too. Our teachers are professionals who are on the front lines of many challenging situations and distractions.
“Social media won’t go away; hopefully, it’s something our community can take ownership of and use it for good.”
Says Danville school board member THOMAS MILLER: “It greatly concerns me, in the midst of everything that’s happening with the pandemic. Some teachers are afraid for their lives when they hear about teachers being attacked by their students, and they’re choosing other professions.”
JOHN ODLE says: “Our colleges are not able to recruit enough students into the teaching career path, which is causing shortages in some teaching tracts.
“We are losing young teachers within the first five years because of pay, lack of respect and the lack of parental support of teachers, among a growing list of other issues.
“The issue that people are not looking at is the number of teachers that are not entering into school administration due to all the mandates and pressures of the job.
“Eventually, we will run out of principals and superintendents to operate schools and school districts.
“You can look at the number of principals and superintendents that are retiring compared to the number of teachers entering the administrative tract and see a problem on the horizon.
“The TikTok/social media nonsense and global pandemic are accelerants of an educational crisis that has been coming for a while.”
Says Champaign Urbana Schools Foundation Executive Director KELLY HILL: “The pressures and expectations placed on teachers in the current school environment are unsustainable. Social media threats only add to these challenges and make everyone in schools feel unsafe.
“No one can teach or learn in an unsafe environment, and our schools can’t function, much less thrive, until this baseline is ready established.”
BRIAN BROOKS says: “The pandemic has shown people that life is short. Because of that, I think you are seeing that people are evaluating many aspects of their lives, including their professions.
“The only thing holding many of them back is their true love for wanting to help and educate kids.”
SCOTT WATSON says: “With the way the state has put the schools in the middle of these situations with quarantines, masks and testing protocols — plus all the hoops a prospective teacher has to jump through to even get their teaching license — teaching is becoming a dying profession.”
TOM MULLIGAN says: “I really believe that school districts that are quick to evolve to innovations and changes in our society do the best job of supporting and keeping teachers in the classroom.”
DERRICE HIGHTOWER says: "I don't think that this will be the cause of teachers leaving the profession.
"Most teachers leaving the profession are leaving due to the overwhelming amount of work that consumes them. Lack of appreciation and pay are other factors.
"There is not enough time in the day to complete necessary tasks let alone try to deal with social media nonsense."
GREG STOCK says: “There are so many teachers I know right now that are rethinking their career choice and how sustainable doing this job really is. There are lots of reasons for that, and it’s always a combination of various factors.
“That being said, this is just one more thing to potentially push people out. The challenges themselves are both disturbing and ridiculous, but if students act on some of this nonsense, I absolutely think it will push people over the edge to change careers.”
LINDSEY HALL says: “Public educators have been amazing, resilient and have persevered through the last 18 months. It is incredibly disturbing that TikTok would allow the promotion of what is essentially assault, battery, harassment and intimidation against people who serve others each day and against fellow students.
“No one can blame public educators for finding other lines of work. However, each day, I see our incredibly dedicated and caring staff show up, work hard and teach, support and help our students.
“This speaks to the fact that teaching and serving others in education is a calling.”