In the latest round of What the hell has happened to humanity?, there are now parents on TikTok who are showing their kids pictures of disabled people or people with diseases that affect their physical appearance. And then they are pretending these strangers are their kids’ new teachers. Because, apparently, if a five-year-old reacts in fear to someone with scars or crossed eyes or who appears to be severely intoxicated, it’s hilarious.
As I write this, videos with the #newteacherchallenge hashtag have more than 42 million views on TikTok. Some of the videos on TikTok and other social media channels are of people speaking out against it, including Lizzie Velasquez, an author and motivational speaker who was born with an extremely rare congenital disease and who has had her image used to introduce children to their “new teacher.” But a disturbing amount of the posts with that hashtag are people trying to shock their children into a frightened or disgusted reaction, so they can then post that reaction for all the world to watch and chuckle along.
And for the parents who do this challenge so they can post their kid’s sweet, inclusive, unphased reaction? That’s not cool either. It doesn’t illustrate what a good parent you are — especially if you can barely disguise your disappointment when you continually prod them with, “What do you think of her?” and they respond with something kind like, “Every teacher’s great.” The reaction isn’t the point; the participation in a challenge that mocks people because of their appearance is the point.
Some of these photos appear to be mug shots. Some of them are people with disabilities or illness. Some have been photoshopped to make them more shocking. None of them are funny.
Doing stuff like this actively teaches kids how to be cyber bullies. Laughing at a child’s negative virtual reaction to the appearance of a stranger is no better than laughing if they had a reaction like this to someone in the grocery store.
I know I’m probably preaching to the choir, and I suppose that anyone who thinks something like this is funny is unlikely to be swayed by an argument about helping kids develop more empathy by modelling empathy yourself. But if you want to use the New Teacher Challenge for anything, use it to talk to kids about how the people in those pictures might feel if or when they find out they’re being laughed at by countless strangers on the internet. Use it to show kids how to report bullying content like this on social media. And then go on a “reporting” spree with them.