School & District Management

Principals Know A TikTok Ban Won’t Solve All Their Problems. But Many Still Want One

By Olina Banerji — April 03, 2024 5 min read
The TikTok logo is seen on a mobile phone in front of a computer screen which displays the TikTok home screen, Oct. 14, 2022, in Boston.
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Assistant Principal Shameka Joyner was first stunned, then dismayed by how quickly a TikTok trend spread through her school, the 720-student Pine Forest Middle School in Fayetteville, N.C. Students created fake pages on TikTok to spread rumors about their classmates.

“They’d crop pictures of [other students’] heads onto different bodies, say humiliating things about them, or just make up stories. If we reported these pages, students would just start new ones,” said Joyner.

There was no accountability either—the posters posted anonymously, and used decoy profile pictures.

“Social media is nearly the whole foundation for conflict between students. That’s where the fights start,” said Joyner.

Joyner isn’t the only school leader who would support a ban on TikTok, should Congress decide to take the drastic step.

In an informal poll of 177 educators via one of its newsletters, EdWeek found that 55 percent of principals said a TikTok ban would “make their jobs easier.”

The complications of TikTok, they said, includes breaking up fights that start online, addressing mental health challenges that stem from online bullying, and high rates of chronic absenteeism that’s often a result of kids spending too much time scrolling through their social media on school nights.

School leaders are worried, though, that banning one app may not stem these problems.

“If not TikTok, they’ll find another medium to share these viral challenges,” said Kristen Peterson, the assistant principal at Chesterton High School in Chesterton, Ind. Peterson saw students destroy school property, especially bathrooms, prompted by a TikTok challenge that gripped students as they returned to their schools after the pandemic. Students feel pressured and anxious to prove themselves through these challenges, said Peterson.

“Even if we curb cellphone usage in school, kids are on TikTok and other social media at home with no monitoring. Earlier, if you were fighting in school, you could go home and get a break from it. But social media is merciless,” Peterson added.

And other apps are as problematic, and harder to trace.

Scott Wisniewski, the principal of Pompton Lakes High School in Passaic County, N.J. has his eyes trained on Snapchat, the popular video messaging tool where messages are deleted within 24 hours. “A lot of negative comments are made on Snapchat and there’s no way of tracing them back when students complain to us.”

Preempting harm is hard. School leaders are trying

Wisniewski wants to limit the use of cellphones in his school, to limit how much time his students spend on social media. It’s a tricky balance to strike, especially when teachers need to give out quizzes or take quick online polls.

For example, the state of Indiana has enacted a cellphone ban in classrooms. Peterson said enforcing that law has helped to some extent. “They still use it in the cafeteria, so it’s an ongoing battle to control usage,” said Peterson.

Curbing cellphones is one strategy, but school leaders are trying to do more than just react.

Peterson’s high school, for instance, has instituted an in-house group of teachers who create curriculum to address the use of social media. The modules, dispensed to students through SEL advisory sessions, focus on topics like how to be a good digital citizen. The group can create lessons based on specific issues that students are facing.

“We recently had the group create an advisory on what’s okay to send via email. Students were sending each other inappropriate emails,” said Peterson.

Joyner has a more hands-on approach with her middle school students, by starting a conversation with them about positive social media usage. Joyner visits her classrooms every week, which helps her gauge if a TikTok trend, or a video, has caused any disruptions among students.

She provides incentives for good usage and disincentives—like a cancelled field trip—if she finds students in a particular class or grade making inappropriate comments on social media.

Joyner’s also candid with her students about the harm social media can do. She tells them about instances of bullying, discusses mental health issues that lead to suicide, and how they can get in trouble with the law for posting inappropriate content. The direct approach has worked, Joyner says, and decreased the number of negative posts by students.

For Wisniewski, conversations on the appropriate use of social media are most common when students in his high school start their college applications.

“I tell them, just like we look up prospective teacher candidates on social media, colleges are going to comb through their social media presence,” said Wisniewski. He tells them that once they post on TikTok, or any other site, the content belongs to the company, and is “out there” for prospective colleges and employers to review.

As creators, principals can model good behavior

Wisniewski has tried another strategy—to turn social media into a force for good.

He’s one of several educators who have a TikTok or Instagram account, which they use to share stories about their school, or tips for fellow educators. Wisniewski’s been posting on his school-focused Instagram account for over 100 days now, and his feed consists primarily of the schools’ achievements.

“I believe parents and the larger community should hear from me outside of school events,” he added. His posts, he added, are also an advertisement targeted at new teachers, who may be encouraged to apply his school.

Joyner also uses her own TikTok account to model good online behavior for her students by showing them the contrast between her “positive” posts about the school, and the “negative” ones they post about their peers.

The posts, Wisniewski said, have helped establish a two-way communication channel with students and parents.

“I think adults are still feeling their way through social media. We haven’t modeled great behavior online, for our kids to follow,” he said. “I’m actually hopeful that this generation of kids will figure out positive uses of social media.”

Until then, Wisniewski thinks a ban might curb discipline issues in the short run.

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