Bullied on social media
Credit: Sam Wordley / Shutterstock
BARTH KECK

I thought teaching during a pandemic was challenging enough, but now I have to worry about students assaulting me as I walk down the hallways.

As WTNH reported, “Some teachers are concerned for their safety and have been reaching out to the Connecticut Education Association after the ‘Slap a Teacher’ challenge emerged on TikTok.”

While they sound absurd, TikTok challenges must be taken seriously. Just ask officials at New Britain High School.

“The school was rocked by vandalism and fights after classes started Sept. 1, with conditions getting so bad that classes were moved online [Sept. 22] so administrators could figure out what to do,” according to The Hartford Courant.

Among the damage were broken faucets, damaged toilets and missing doors and soap dispensers.

“The school district blamed the ‘Devious Licks’ campaign on TikTok for two weeks of vandalism targeted at high school bathrooms,” explained the Courant story. Originally planning to shut the school down for three days, officials relented after the state Department of Education said it would not sanction remote learning this year.

TikTok, a social media platform, is filled with 15-second videos, explains reporter Werner Geyser, that include a “plethora of music and dialogue options, with which they could lip sync and make funny or entertaining videos.”

Such “entertaining videos” include these latest challenges like “Slap a Teacher” and “Devious Licks,” the latter of which has been blamed for incidents of vandalism at schools throughout Connecticut and the nation.

While more challenges are on the docket, administrators at TikTok said they have shut down the ones that violate their community guidelines.  

But even if TikTok can successfully thwart the asinine challenges — which is doubtful, given the ways users have circumvented previous bans — other nefarious social-media platforms remain.

“Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” according to researchers from Facebook, which owns Instagram. “Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.”

The Wall Street Journal shared substantive portions of the internal report in a Sept. 14 story, noting, “Repeatedly, the company’s researchers found that Instagram is harmful for a sizable percentage of them, most notably teenage girls.”

Facebook presented its findings internally in March 2020. Now,18 months later, it has made no relevant changes to Instagram, a platform which “make[s] body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” according to the company’s own research.

Why has nothing changed? Perhaps because Facebook is more concerned with its own image than with the self-image of teenage girls.

“Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, signed off last month on a new initiative code-named Project Amplify,” reported The New York Times recently. “The effort, which was hatched at an internal meeting in January, had a specific purpose: to use Facebook’s News Feed, the site’s most important digital real estate, to show people positive stories about the social network.”

Staff members for U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, meanwhile, did some research of their own in which they “created a fake 13-year-old girl’s profile, then watched Facebook sites on eating disorders and extreme dieting follow her around the internet.”

“That undercover congressional operation became the backdrop for Blumenthal’s charges that Facebook has staged a ‘relentless campaign to recruit and exploit younger users,’ using deceptive tactics and ignoring online safety issues that even the platform’s own researchers have acknowledged,” reported Hearst CT Media.

TikTok challenges. Instagram body shaming. Facebook indifference. All are detrimental to the health and well-being of teenagers. When will the destructiveness end? Or, more accurately, will it ever end?

Given the guarded response from Facebook to Blumenthal’s charges and the complexities of regulating social media platforms, I’m not holding my breath. In the meantime, while the lawyers and politicians attempt a solution, I’ll revert to my old standby: media literacy.

Students today, simply need to understand how all forms of media — especially social media —  influence their lives, and they need to learn about the tools that can help them navigate the digital media environment. In short, media literacy must become part of the K-12 curriculum. 

In the end, TikTok challenges that encourage ruinous behavior are neither funny nor entertaining. The same goes for Instagram posts that cause emotional trauma for teenage girls. They are plainly irresponsible and damaging. 

It’s well past time for schools to teach kids media literacy.

Barth Keck is in his 31st year as an English teacher and his 16th year as assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School in Higganum where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language and Composition. Follow Barth on Twitter @keckb33 or email him at keckb33@sbcglobal.net. 

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com or Regional School District 17.

Barth Keck

Barth Keck is in his 30th year as an English teacher and 15th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition.