Despite Social Media Pitfalls, TikTok Dreams Abound at Almira Elementary School: Cleveland’s Promise

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Imagine having thousands of TikTok followers – an entire community of people waiting to see what funny or informative video you post next.

Views and likes are pouring in with every post, and you’re a big social media influencer. People all over the world know your page. Groups of friends talk to each other about your videos. They want to be like you.

Now imagine you are a fifth grader with a TikTok channel. You can have a modest audience of around 100 people, mostly your friends and a few family members. But then a video goes viral, and suddenly you’re a local celebrity at your school.

It’s the dream of some students at Almira Elementary School in Cleveland. and The Plain Dealer spent the last year embedded in Ms. Sharon Lenahan’s fourth-grade classroom at Almira, documenting life inside a Cleveland classroom and the innovative ways teachers achieve children whose lives are complicated by poverty.

Some of Ms Sharon Lenahan’s pupils – including Carter, a fun-loving boy who is an aspiring artist – want to be TikTok stars or have their own YouTube channels when they grow up. Carter wants to showcase his art on YouTube, just like his favorite artist, ZHC, who drew art on a mega-size PlayStation 5 and painted a swimming pool, in front of his audience of 24.8 million subscribers.

As Ms. Lenahan listens to her students and learns more about them, she doesn’t want to discourage them from aspiring to become social media stars. She recognizes that anything is possible. Indeed, she remembers a student, during the summer of 2021, who had accumulated 9,000 followers on TikTok. And after all, in the past, when many boys wanted to become basketball players, she didn’t destroy their dream of playing professional basketball. She simply encouraged them to practice, to be realistic about their prospects, and most importantly, to have a backup plan.

“The way our society is right now with social media booming, with Instagram and TikTok and all the other platforms that are out there that I probably don’t even know about, I can’t help but encourage them to do what they do. ‘they want,” Ms. Lenahan said. “It’s just a bit foreign to me. I wouldn’t know how to encourage them to do that. I can only, I guess, with social media encourage them to post good content.

Ms. Lenahan strives to expose students to different careers that interest them. For example, one of her students, Ashley, expressed interest in becoming a singer and actress. So Ms Lenahan asked Near West Theater executive director Mike Obertacz to speak to the class via Zoom, for a week in January when Covid had returned classes to remote learning mode.

Two other students told Ms. Lenahan that they wanted to work with animals in the future. So Ms. Lenahan invited Jenny DeGroot, associate animal curator of the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, to give a presentation.

Becoming a TikTok star is a trickier life goal to help students achieve, from an educator’s perspective. On the one hand, social media platforms are such an integral part of children’s lives these days that children of this generation may be perfectly equipped to earn a decent living in this field. On the other hand, there is no set formula for success as an influencer. And for most adults, the dream seems unrealistic.

“I guess I can only hope they do something that’s creative, that draws people in, that’s wholesome,” Ms. Lenahan said. “And that it is in no way to promote any type of violence or negativity. That it’s just positive, good, creative content.

So while her students wait for their social media stars to rise, Ms. Lenahan uses their ambitions to impress upon them the importance of education. Influencers can make a living, especially if they acquire brand sponsors. With all this money pouring in, social media stars need to understand money management. Right?

Teachable moments are everywhere in the lives of Almira’s fourth graders.

TikTok: where is the harm?

Now let’s move on to the harsh reality of TikTok that cannot be ignored.

Despite TikTok’s appeal, the platform is full of negative and inappropriate content. Various “challenges” that can cause bodily harm to children who attempt them have surfaced on the app.

The parents of two young girls recently sued TikTok after their daughters died trying the ‘breakdown challenge’. The challenge encouraged people to choke until they passed out, according to the lawsuit. A 12-year-old boy from Richmond Heights died earlier this month after trying.

In November, Bloomberg News reported that the blackout challenge was linked to the deaths of at least 15 children, aged 12 or younger in the past 18 months, and five other deaths of children aged 13 and 14 years old.

The “milk crate challenge” also comes to mind. In the summer of 2021, dozens of people posted TikTok videos of themselves trying to walk along a pyramid of milk crates. Most of the time, people fell from the crates, risking injury.

Another potentially harmful social media stunt is the “chip challenge,” where users eat a spicy Paqui tortilla chip, made with Carolina Reaper Pepper and Scorpion Pepper. Those who accept the challenge try to prolong the search for relief after eating the chip. Some students fell ill at a college in Minnesota in October after taking the challenge.

A study by Chinese researchers found that overusing TikTok was harmful to children. The algorithms at work on TikTok’s For You page feed users an endless scroll of videos tailored to their interests. Even adults can end up spending hours on the app if they are not conscious of their time. For a child whose brain is still developing, it can be difficult to know when to stop.

Due to the nature of the app, TikTok allows parents to link their children’s accounts to their own. It’s called Family Safety Mode, and using the mode’s Screen Time Management feature, parents can control how long their child stays on the app.

Although TikTok requires users to be at least 13 years old to enjoy the full app, children under 13 can use an age-appropriate version of the app. According to Common Sense Media, this version offers more security and privacy features, and kids only see clean and appropriate videos. They are not allowed to comment on them and they cannot search or post their own content.

Still, a child could simply circumvent the most appropriate version by entering a fake birthday.

Set achievable social media goals

Beverly Adaeze, a social media star who has more than 520,000 followers on TikTok, said she gets it — kids love attention.

“They like to be in the know, and (TikTok) is the big deal right now,” Adaeze told “And so when you see a classmate and they see a video that has a million views, you kind of see that person as the cool kid.”

Becoming a social media influencer is an attractive undertaking for a child. But while producing viral TikTok videos can be exciting and euphoric, trying to make it a full-time job might not be the best approach, advises Adaeze. Rather, she said young people should consider using TikTok to advance their craft or profession.

For example, if someone becomes a doctor, they can use the app to provide medical advice; a chef could offer cooking tips; an athlete could post training demonstrations.

Adaeze, who is also a professional hairstylist, said creating on TikTok can have its benefits, noting that students can use the platform to earn money for college.

“My brother, he talks a lot about his favorite YouTubers,” Adaeze said. “I think that’s cool. I think that’s good, but I also don’t encourage (young people) to just focus on that. Always focus on school, you know, get your education. Or find a good exchange, and then you can use it to build your TikTok.

Thanks for the reading The Cleveland Promise. Please consider supporting journalism like this by joining our community of subscribers. With a paid subscription, you get access to everything published by a team of journalists committed to delivering accurate news, entertainment, and sports in Northeast Ohio. Please register here. –Chris Quinn, Editor

For this innovative series, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District gave two journalists unprecedented access to a classroom at Almira Elementary School to show readers the challenges of raising children in poverty and what what the school district is doing to overcome them. The names of the students have been changed to protect their identity. Learn more about this project here.

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