- Seven young adults posed as high school students for a semester for the A&E documentary series “Undercover High.”
- They learned that social media is a bigger source of stress than teachers and parents were previously aware.
- School staff often struggles to relate to the social media-related problems teenagers go through.
Technology has transformed the way we consume information and communicate with one another.
For high school students, that’s not always a good thing.
That’s what seven young adults learned when they spent a semester posing as students at a Kansas high school for the A&E documentary series “Undercover High.” The show follows the adults, ages 21 to 26, as they navigate life as a student and expose the challenges facing students and school staff at Highland Park High School.
As the undercover students quickly learned, cell phone use was rampant throughout the school. Teachers often struggled to get students to put away their phones during class, and conflicts between students could easily fester online while teachers were busy with their lessons.
“Bullying has been a thing since the beginning of time, but it’s very different today,” Shane Feldman, an undercover student who graduated from high school in 2012, told Business Insider. “The 24/7 nature of it, the way that it transfers onto the online word, has an impact on everything.”
Often, conflicts that arise at school would boil over to social media after school, and escalate more quickly than administrators could deal with, said Beryl New, who was principal at Highland Park when the show was filmed in the spring 2017 semester.
“Back in the day, if a child was going to be bullied, it might be one person, one incident that happens on the playground or while you’re waiting on the bus. It can be resolved and it’s pretty much the end of it,” New told Business Insider, adding that social media can be “something of an epidemic.”
“Now it can be one person has an issue with one person and everybody else chimes in, and by the time it gets to the next day someone wants to fight, someone’s not going to school, someone is threatening suicide. It took something singular, granular even, and it’s just ballooned over night until it becomes a major issue.”
The undercover students, some of whom graduated from high school as recently as four years ago, observed how social media has become a significantly bigger presence in the lives of teenagers from when they were in school.
“The kinds of challenges that I experienced in high school along with my peers are now 24/7 issues because of technology, computers, cell phones, and social media. There’s no real escape,” Feldman told Business Insider. “Now you can be 13 and feel like you have the full weight of the world on your shoulders. I don’t think teachers and parents, respectfully, understand what they are facing.”
Worse yet, some teachers at Highland Park are finding it increasingly harder to connect with students when their problems are hidden in group texts and online threads, and not in plain sight. This has added a challenging element to their jobs, and some motivated teachers at the school have made an effort to engage with students on social media and stay alert for red flags they see online.
But the problems are often greater than what teachers can handle. In one early episode, a 22-year-old undercover student named Lina was tipped off to a group chat in which male students were making disturbing sexual comments about her. School administrators investigated the incident and discovered that some of the students in the chat weren’t even students in the Topeka Public Schools district.
In another episode, one Highland Park student tells the cameras that female students face constant pressure to send sexual images of themselves to other students – a move that can have devastating consequences.
“The girls that get exposed and stuff, they’re like, the freshman girls,” the girl told cameras in one scene. “They’re, like, really dumb, and they’ll just like send stuff to just about anyone that asks for it.”
Meanwhile, social media can lead to depression among students who feel they can’t compare to the lavish lifestyles of the people they follow.
“They are constantly seeing all these perfect images instead of the reality of the messiness and awkwardness of actual life,” Feldman told Business Insider.
“They see all these perfect photoshopped images of celebrities and quote-unquote ‘influencers’ online. It’s given them a completely unrealistic, warped view of life, especially when many of these students have never traveled outside their states or haven’t even seen water.”
New, who left Highland Park last year to work as an administrator in the school district, said she doesn’t expect technology-related conflicts to disappear any time soon.
“I’m old enough to remember when we had no cell phones 12 to 15 years ago. To go with from a few people having them to most of the adults, to almost every single child – they can be a homeless child and have a cell phone, free and reduced meals and have a cell phone,” New said. “It’s a great leveler, socially.”
“Undercover High” airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. EST.