N.B. schools vandalized in viral TikTok challenge
'Devious Licks' trend has seen schools across North America damaged, with perpetrators posting videos online
A social media challenge that encourages students to vandalize schools is wreaking havoc at high schools across Canada and the U.S. — even leading to students being arrested in some cases.
In September, a challenge dubbed "Devious Licks," which is slang for theft, encouraged students to steal or damage school property and post videos to TikTok. In October, social media users attempted to get a "Slap a Teacher" challenge trending on social media.
TikTok has since blocked videos and searches related to either challenge, but not before waves of damage had rolled over schools — everything from stolen soap dispensers to toilet seats sprayed with red food colouring — including here in New Brunswick.
"We experienced some instances of vandalism in school restrooms, believed to be associated with this TikTok trend," Anglophone South school district superintendent Zoë Watson said in an email.
"We have no tolerance for it and investigate every instance."
Watson did not identify the schools, nor did she specify what type of vandalism had occurred.
However, she noted, "we have let students in affected schools know that if they are involved, they may be responsible for financial damages, face suspension, and possible criminal charges."
While there have been several reports of students in the U.S. being arrested because of the vandalism, there have been no such reports in Canada.
"To date," Watson said, "we have not sought criminal charges."
The Anglophone North school district has also confirmed recent incidents of school property being damaged.
"We have had a handful of our schools that have experienced some level of vandalism because of recent [TikTok] challenges, ranging from property damage to stolen items," communications director Meredith Caissie said in an email.
"There is no tolerance for any acts that negatively impact our students, staff or school property."
Anglophone East school district communications director Stephanie Patterson said it is "difficult to know if incidents of vandalism are the result of a TikTok challenge." But she noted that the district provides support to schools addressing any instances that occur.
TikTok denounces 'offline teen dares'
On Thursday, TikTok denounced what it called "offline teen dares," and warned that perpetrators of such challenges would be removed from their platform.
"We are hearing of offline teen dares being suggested as future 'TikTok challenges' and want to be crystal clear: dangerous challenges and illegal behaviour are not allowed on our platform and will be removed," a TikTok spokesperson said in an email to CBC News.
"We expect teens to use common courtesy both online and [in real life], and we're committed to helping support messages about being good digital stewards."
TikTok has posted several tweets on its Twitter account addressing talk of harmful social media trends in recent weeks, urging users to "be kind to schools and teachers."
We expect our community to create responsibly - online and IRL. We're removing content and redirecting hashtags & search results to our Community Guidelines to discourage such behavior. Please be kind to your schools & teachers. <a href="https://t.co/mIFtsYwFRb">pic.twitter.com/mIFtsYwFRb</a>—@TikTokComms
It also tweeted that "the rumored 'slap a teacher' dare is an insult to educators everywhere."
It stressed that the challenge is "not a trend on TikTok," but warned that if it does show up at any point, "content will be removed."
The allure of misbehaving for an audience
So what, exactly, is the attraction of posting a video of yourself doing something so obviously inappropriate?
Lucia O'Sullivan, who teaches social psychology at the University of New Brunswick, said getting the attention and affirmation of a peer group holds a powerful allure for teens.
And of course, there are those prized social media reactions to whatever a student has posted.
You can't underestimate "the incredible buzz" kids get from "likes," O'Sullivan said in an interview.
"I'm actually always amazed how attuned they are to how many likes they got for everything they post," she said, noting they "curate everything" and then wait anxiously to see how it's gone over among their peer group – which is in fact a "huge mass of hundreds of people they don't even really know."
It's a deep-rooted adolescent desire to be popular, and it's a particularly challenging desire to satisfy when people are feeling disconnected by the pandemic and "living so much more of our life online."
Then there's the crowd-mentality factor.
"One of the things I teach about is the power of groups," O'Sullivan said. "So in particular, we do a lot of subversive or unconventional or crazy things when we feel like we cannot be held accountable."
The added component of anonymity that TikTok affords – you're one random person in a sea of millions of people posting videos – shields users from consequences.
It's the same reason people will mob and loot stores during a blackout, trash their neighbourhood after their team loses a game, or viciously troll someone online, O'Sullivan said.
"You're just immersed in the crowd, essentially. ... No one can blame you. No one can punish you."
O'Sullivan said that when you take the same people out of that crowd, "they're contrite."
"They don't feel that strongly or they aren't that angry or mean-spirited, but it's something about the loss of self in the anonymous context," she said.
"So it's the crowd, essentially. And it brings out the worst."