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Undercover at school

Five former students went undercover at a high school in the Netherlands for a new reality serie. The school board was aware, but students and teachers weren’t. Is this a new media phenomenon? And is it even legal? How does this deception affect students and teachers?
By Christine Dirkse

Berber Hagedoorn

Assistant professor of media studies

‘Reality tv has been around for a long time. They used to stage scenes in the first documentaries in the 1920s. Not everything you see is real: reality is faked as much as possible in an effort to bring a message across. And the producers always make a selection of what they’re going to show. And so documentary makers always present their own version of reality.

The idea to use ‘expert students’ at a school isn’t new, either. It reminds me of 21 Jump Street, that American series from the 80s where young police officers went undercover at a high school. And the concept the producers were using in Veenendaal is originally American as well.

The idea to send former students back to school to show how hard a time children can have at school is pretty good though. But we have to ask ourselves whether we even need fake students to tell an honest story about life at school, whether we need them to pierce that ‘bubble’. You could just focus on the actual students and teachers.

They could even film things themselves; kids are getting ever better t that. Because the issue with reality tv is always: how can you tell an honest story when the camera is always there? How does that camera influence reality?’

Koen Konings

Lecturer of law

‘Privacy laws certainly apply to this situation, especially the GDPR. Because using other people likeness and recording observations falls under the use of personal data. In Europe, you’re only allowed to use personal data if you have legal grounds to do so.

There are six different reasons for these legal grounds. One of them is that you need the personal data for legitimate interests. So that raises the question: does the school have a legitimate interest in these recordings? I don’t think they’d be able to prove that, so that wouldn’t be a proper argument.

Another reason for the grounds to use the data is consent: did the people whose data were used give permission for this? They did, because both the parents and the students had to sign a waiver for the recordings. But the issue of consent isn’t all that simple. First of all, it needs to be given voluntarily. I’m pretty sure it was in this case.

The people giving their consent also need to be properly informed of what’s going on, and specifically, what the recordings are being used for. It sounds like the students weren’t properly informed of this. After all, they didn’t know the undercover students were there. That means they couldn’t give informed consent, even though it was legally necessary. That would mean the personal data was used in breach with the law.’

Gijs Huitsing

Assistant professor of sociology

‘Teenagers should be able to feel safe in school. They should feel like they have room to be who they are or who they want to be. After all, they are still developing their personality. And so it’s important that they’re allowed to make mistakes and find out who they are.

Teachers play an important role in this development as well, but they can only do so properly if there is a relationship built on trust between teachers and students. Withholding important information or disclosing information told in confidence can damage that bond: if the school isn’t honest about that, what else might they be lying about?’

‘The relationship between teenagers is also an important factor in their development. Pubers are always looking to each other to figure out if what they’re doing is socially acceptable, whether they conform to the norm, and whether their achievements are good enough.

If you introduce into this environment students who aren’t real students anymore, who’ve already gone through this process and are at a different stage of development, you disrupt this social process of comparison and influence. Students will start to emulate peers who aren’t really their peers.’

‘Finally, not just the students, but the teachers need to feel safe in the school environment as well. And so the bond of trust between teachers and the school board is damaged as well.’


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