(Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

TikTok time bomb

Schools across the UK have been targeted by anonymous TikTok accounts where pupils rate and defame their teachers

If Mr **** got paid for staring at little girls, he’d be rich.”

“Miss **** is a massive racist.”

“I swear Mr **** only makes the girls do squats in PE so that he can watch.”

Within three minutes of logging onto TikTok (a guilty pleasure of mine left over from those dark days of pre-Critic furlough in 2020) I found these messages — and worse — directed at teachers in the UK.

Teenagers now publicly defame their teachers

I had to see for myself after reading a recent BBC article on how TikTok school videos are “causing real distress” to teachers, with some even driven to take time off work. Schools across the UK have been the target of TikTok accounts in which pupils rate their teachers and defame their schools, some of which are titled “slander accounts”. This isn’t a new phenomenon — websites like RateMyTeacher.com have existed in one form or another since the early 2000s — but the popularity of TikTok means that this kind of content has a wider reach than ever before.

I have many close friends who are teachers, and my partner is a teacher at an inner city comprehensive. From what I’ve seen and heard, it’s a thankless profession that is now being made more unbearable by teenagers publicly defaming their teachers.

I couldn’t resist searching for his school and what I found disturbed me: videos would unashamedly tar entire departments as either paedophiles or racists. It made for grim viewing, and it was depressing to see my partner — one of those teachers who actually cares about the wellbeing of their pupils, even the horrible ones — be slandered in this way.

Thankfully I was on the cusp of leaving school before we had unfettered access to social media via our phones. I dread to think how we would have behaved with such technology and often regard my millennial status as a saving grace, along with the gift of my dad’s old brick from 2006. (Back then, loading the internet on your phone would take as long as breaktime itself.) Now that teenagers have effectively unlimited access to the internet (and all its horrors) at their fingertips, why don’t headteachers take a leaf out of Katharine Birbalsingh’s book when it comes to discipline?

Birbalsingh is the head of Michaela Community School, a free school in Brent which has strict rules on mobile phone usage. Her stance is that allowing pupils to use phones in school is like letting them smoke, drink and watch porn. (She has also defended the extremely unfashionable idea of original sin, which suggests children will naturally tend towards these things, unless they are taught right from wrong and then “habituated into choosing good over evil”.)

Many children have an extreme internet addiction

When I spoke to David James, the deputy head of a leading independent school in London, he told me that the leadership team at his school are expecting this trend to land on their doorstep before too long. He also expressed concern that, after this trend has done the rounds, the next big thing could be the use of “Deep Fake” —  a technology now available on iPhones that can make individuals appear to do or say things that they haven’t done (such as, for example, making the Queen appear to be breakdancing) — to take the defamation of teachers up a notch. 

The use of deep fake in pornography has been extremely controversial; it doesn’t take any stretch of the imagination to conceive of the damage that could be done if students turn this technology against their teachers or other pupils. James argues we’re not proactive enough when it comes to Big Tech: “these companies provide the platforms that can ruin innocent people’s lives. Let’s hold them to account.”

But he also believes families aren’t doing enough: “Any progress in this area will be limited unless parents play a full part in monitoring what their children are doing. They pay their bills, and they can take those phones away.” 

That’s all well and good, but as Birbalsingh argues, many children have an extreme internet addiction and most parents “bottle it” when it comes to limiting phone use. The response can be extreme, with children going on hunger strike or threatening to leave home altogether when adults demand a reduction in mobile usage. She said:

“Unsupervised access to the internet puts children in mental and physical danger. It breaks the bond between kids and adults as it introduces them to a murky world which encourages them to behave badly in order to fit in.” 

Chinese children are far more restricted in internet access

Schools are unable to do much about this either. A  number of teachers told Radio 4’s The World at One last week that a significant amount of time was spent trying to track down pupils who had posted anonymous and often baseless accusations on the platform. TikTok is apparently taking “extra measures” to remove videos targeting teachers, but it is hard to find out who runs these anonymous accounts and they continue to pop up frequently. 

There is, however, another dimension to this. TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Beijing-based company, and earlier this year The Washington Post reported that the Chinese government had acquired a stake in the company’s domestic unit.

Chinese children are far more restricted in their internet access and yet TikTok seems at liberty to severely disrupt the schooling of children in the UK. Of course, I am not suggesting for one minute that this is a big conspiracy for China to ruin education in the West — it’s more a question of why are we willing to put up with behaviour from a Chinese firm that China itself wouldn’t tolerate. Just recently Beijing introduced new rules limiting the amount of time children can spend on online video games to three hours a week, a move it said was necessary to reduce the huge problem of addiction.

In the UK, however, schools are powerless to act, and the Government is still adopting a laissez-faire attitude to Big Tech. One suggestion has been for TikTok to give head teachers a login which allows them to remove slanderous posts relating to their school. It’s a good start, but why stop there?

No other generation has been exposed to the endless, always-on stream of social media, so it’s hard to argue convincingly that any ancient rights are being infringed if the Government simply shuts it off for children. If parents won’t — or can’t — act, and TikTok feels it’s big enough to ignore the concerns of teachers, then the only actor left is Westminster. Over the last few years No.10 has used powers we didn’t think it had. Is it too much for it now to stand up to Big Tech, and protect our children?

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover