Over the past 100 years of American history, the education system in America has provided young learners with structure, knowledge and general skills that will benefit them over their lifetime. In recent years especially, schools have taken it upon themselves to become more politicized and polarizing; a trend that is troubling for many. Now, topics such as critical race theory are further polarizing students and parents and are taking away from the main purpose of a school, which is to teach children how to think rather than what to think.
Even more recently, the social media platform TikTok has gained a strong foothold into the American education system through TikTok dances and TikTok challenges. The TikTok dances for the most part are silly, harmless movements. TikTok challenges, however are an entirely different beast altogether.
As someone who currently runs the safety/security department in a moderately-sized district in the midwest, I’ve seen some incredibly concerning trends make their way both into teenage culture and into their school buildings. Since school began in August 2021, month after month we’ve moved from a TikTok trend named devious lick, to kiss your friend’s girlfriend at school, to slap a teacher and record it month to call in school safety threats during the month of December. In fact, Friday, December 17, 2021 was dubbed “National shoot up your school day” across the nation. In response to those threats, some districts around the country even went so far as to close the entire district down to better ensure the safety of students and staff.
It is here that my serious concerns with TikTok begin to materialize.
TikTok was created in 2016 and has been gaining users and popularity in the years since. While the platform was originally based in Los Angeles, California, the company is now owned by ByteDance; a Chinese-0wned company. But more on this later in the article.
As I mentioned earlier, TikTok challenges have quickly become woven into the fabric of teenage life and have quickly become the bane of both teachers and administrators’ existence. The first challenge I spoke of that occurred through TikTok this year was called “devious lick.” What students were “tasked” to do for this challenge was to destroy school property and document the damage via TikTok, or, to steal school items such as chairs, pencil sharpeners, smart board markers, etc. The challenge called for the bulk of the destruction to be done inside school bathrooms, since it was easier to get away with vandalism there due to the lack of cameras or adult supervision.
In the district I work in, we had numerous days during the devious lick challenge month where the cost of the damage to our bathrooms was in the thousands of dollars. Again, this isn’t the total monthly cost, it was the daily cost. In our bathrooms, kids were ripping soap dispensers off the walls, were intentionally clogging sinks and toilets with paper towels so they’d overflow, were breaking stall doors and toilet paper holders/dispensers, they were vandalizing walls/stalls with permanent markers, and one student even tried to shatter the porcelain commode using a hammer. Behavior like this happened through the entirety of the month in which devious lick was the desired goal. Not only did my school district have tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage done to it, but principals and other administrators were spending large chunks of their days either responding to damaged items or by patrolling bathrooms to try to ensure such events didn’t transpire. It was exhausting. Additionally, we had numerous thefts from the district. Students stole signs, smart board materials (those markers cost about $50/piece, as a reference) and just about anything else they could snag from a teacher’s classroom. TikTok seemingly turned some typically rule-following kids into thieves and vandals; all for some views on an app.
The next major challenge we dealt with this year was called “slap a teacher and record it” month. Once I heard about this new trend I made an announcement over the intercom and let the students know that anyone who made the choice to put hands on a teacher – whether for a social media challenge or not – would be criminally charged for assault. Thankfully, I am not aware of even a single incident in my district of a student striking a teacher. Other districts around the nation were less fortunate, though. A student at Covington High School in Louisiana is facing 10 years in prison for her assault on an elderly, disabled teacher courtesy of this TikTok challenge. The student, identified as Larrianna Jackson, allegedly punched the elderly teacher, knocking him/her to the ground before repeatedly hitting the teacher with a closed fist.
The final disturbing TikTok trend of 2021 happened just a couple days ago on Dec. 17. This day was labeled by many as “National shoot up your school day” and was the latest TikTok challenge to come across school districts’ radars. I spoke with many school leaders around the midwest and the common theme for each was the fear that either someone would take the challenge to heart and attempt a violent act at their school, or that school administrators would be so overrun with false reports that a real threat may slip through the cracks.
As of the writing of this article, I am not aware of any violent school incidents that materialized on Dec. 17, but that knowledge fails to ease the burden that was caused by this “challenge.” It has been shown that for kids to learn at school they must at least feel safe, and that makes sense. If a student is more preoccupied with not getting beaten up by a bully (for example) than he/she is with learning Algebra, then not much learning will take place. Similarly, if entire student populations are fearful that a peer will take the trend seriously and come to school and wreak havoc, then not much learning is occurring. Schools have to be a safe place for all to attend. This past Friday, students were scared.
How Can We Prevent This?
The question is: How do we stop these trends from gaining traction? Also, should we/can we hold the owners of TikTok responsible for the information being distributed on their platform?
First, how can we stop these trends from gaining traction? The first step in my opinion is that parents need to parent. If I caught so much as a mouse fart worth of murmuring that my child was engaging in these trends – even as an inactive participant – my child would be in serious trouble. Instead, some parents are giving phones to their 10-15 year-olds as a digital babysitting device and wouldn’t know whether their child is acting appropriately or planning to be the next school shooter. The first issue I see barring prevention is that parents aren’t being parental.
Secondly, we know that platforms such as TikTok can tighten restrictions on their app when certain information is shared, because Social Media platforms have been doing it to conservatives for the last number of years. We know the infrastructure for flagging material exists, now TikTok just has to be willing to actively try to prevent these trends from gaining a stronghold and they need to ban people who create/facilitate these trends to the point they become well-known.
A third way we could prevent this is to disallow cell phones in our schools. I know this one is a pipe dream, but these trends that “require” video evidence to prove it happened would be dead in the water if there was no way in which students could get the necessary video evidence. Additionally, a significant amount of the issues we deal with in the school system day-to-day stem from cell phones…cell phones are where most fights, arguments and threats begin. But, back to reality.
Is TikTok Liable For its Content?
The key legal question for me is can someone hold TikTok and its upper management liable for the items posted on its platform. I know Facebook as an example has faced significant legal scrutiny for claims that it doesn’t do enough to prevent child pornography and human trafficking on its platform. Facebook claims on its “About” page:
“We are committed to protecting your voice and helping you connect and share safely.”
That is easier to claim than it is to act upon, though. Anyone who has browsed Facebook at any point in the last 4-5 years knows that Facebook seems to spend the bulk of its time “blocking the spread of misinformation.” The ridiculousness of the lack of equality present with the misinformation is almost comical. Either one side of the aisle tells only lies about every topic imaginable, or Facebook – or Meta as it is now named – is extremely biased to one side. To end trends towards school violence or destruction, though, there is no room for partisan games. If a social media company plays politics rather than protects children, then they should be held accountable. The tough thing to consider, though, is who do you hold accountable within that company?
I would say that the answer to this nonsense is a bi-partisan congressional committee, but I don’t honestly have the faith in that system either that they would do what is best for the country rather than themselves. I think Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, etc. all need to show that they are putting in at least as much effort to keep children safe than they are to keep adults’ feelings intact by preventing “misinformation.” Social media platforms can’t continue to claim that they are an open forum for people to post what they want but then have these Truth Committees that engage in censorship of ideas and of people they don’t like. Either they are open forums where content creators are responsible for what they create and post or the platforms are publishers that curate, edit, censor, and even ban certain kinds of content along with the content creators themselves. They cannot be both at the same time.
Congress has interviewed the leaders from each of the major social media platforms including TikTok’s Michael Beckerman and have been met with prepared, calculated answers and has had little positive effect on the problem at hand. Until someone with both power and the desire for equality steps up to the plate to tackle this important issue, then I’m afraid that there is no good way at this point to hold the appropriate people responsible.
The China Connection
The final aspect of the TikTok challenge trend that we’ve been seeing I think plays into the fact that the platform is owned by a Chinese company. There is no company in Communist China that is not compelled to cooperate with the government when they are told to. There is no doubt to anyone reading these words that China doesn’t have the United States’ best interests in mind at any given point or time. Four or five decades ago, Chinese spies were forced to gather information through old-school tradecraft and good old-fashioned hard work. Nowadays, billions more pieces of information can be accessed by those same foreign spy networks in the time it would’ve taken a Cold-War era spy to eat a slice of pie. Although TikTok’s L.A. office claims it would never provide their Chinese partners private account info, some TikTok insiders aren’t as confident. One former TikTok employee who spoke on a condition of anonymity said that the line between the American offices of TikTok and the Chinese owners was so “blurry as to be almost non-existent.” This should be troubling news to everyone concerned…which is just about every person in America.
In the end, what American organization would be more fruitful for an enemy to sabotage than our education system. School is the place where students don’t simply learn how to learn, but also where they learn basic life skills. If I was an enemy country hellbent on wreaking the greatest amount of havoc on my foe in the shortest amount of time, then I too would likely spend my time targeting the education system. When I wasn’t targeting the education system specifically, I would target the country’s youth. Sound familiar?