TikTok's latest craze: Stealing stuff from school

Vandalism in restrooms at the MacArthur High School in San Antonio, Texas. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Teenagers are acting out - and their high schools are the victims.

It is all on TikTok. Missing are soap dispensers, bathroom mirrors, paper towel holders, fire alarms and even a teacher's desk - anything that can be swiped from school and then revealed in a TikTok video, with the hashtag #deviouslicks.

In the past month or so, TikTok has hosted close to 94,200 similar videos under #deviouslicks, or #diabolicallicks, according to the website Know Your Meme. The hashtag also seems to have encouraged more serious vandalism, with students taking ceiling tiles, handrails, toilets and bathroom stalls.

To school administrators, the thefts are not what they want to deal with now, just weeks into the new school year, with Covid-19, learning loss and other pressures bearing down. And to some social watchers, the trend is a sign, perhaps, of what teenagers are feeling about the disruptions and powerlessness in their lives.

Schools from California to Michigan to Georgia are cracking down. There have been suspensions, criminal charges and restitution orders. There are bans on bathroom breaks. And there have been warnings.

TikTok is also trying to stop the trend by deleting the content and redirecting hashtags and search results to its Community Guidelines page, according to a spokesman. Still, tens of thousands of videos can be found under adaptations of the original hashtag.

In Singapore, two teenagers are under investigation for possible vandalism of government property in acts that are believed to be linked to a TikTok challenge, said the police on Tuesday (Sept 21). Both cases involved the removal of government signs.

The trend seems to have started on Sept 1, when a TikTok user shared a video, revealing a box of disposable masks in his backpack, with the hashtag "absolutely devious lick". There were more than 239,000 views.

Days later, another TikTok video was posted, this one of hand sanitiser, with the same hashtag.

This time, there were 7.2 million views.

At Takoma Park Middle School, outside Washington, school officials discovered several vandalised bathrooms just days after school began on Aug 30.

The school began locking bathrooms in the five-minute period between classes as part of its new "monitoring plan".

"It is our understanding that this inappropriate behaviour likely stemmed from a 'challenge' promoted through various social media platforms, particularly Tik-Tok," principal Erin Martin wrote in an e-mail sent to families.

At least 10 high schools in the Pasco County Schools district in Land O' Lakes, Florida, have reported stolen soap dispensers, signs and a torn chair leg that was shoved down a toilet, according to the district.

"We are trying to convince students that this is not a prank. It's vandalism," district spokesman Stephen Hegarty said. "It's potentially a criminal behaviour, and it'll be a really bad day when we identify it."

The district already disciplined a handful of students; the punishment includes suspension and criminal charges for theft and vandalism.

"We are really scratching our heads over several things," Mr Hegarty said. "Why post something on social media that will get you in trouble with the law? And why destroy things at your own school, which will result in an inconvenience for everyone?"

For Ms Amanda Brennan, senior director of trends for digital-marketing agency XX Artists, the answer might be the pandemic. After more than a year of shutdowns and virtual schooling, students, who are now returning to schools for the first time, might just be looking for a way to rebel.

"It makes sense to see kids stealing things because it feels like a power play," Ms Brennan said. "You feel powerful over these systems that you may not have felt as if you had a lot of control over."

She said that other platforms, like Reddit or Tumblr, have also hosted communities where people would give tips on stealing, or share what they stole.

Mr Brendan Gahan, a partner and chief social officer at digital agency Mekanism, said #deviouslicks were like senior pranks before the Internet age, as well as other Internet antics - like "gallon smashing" (people recording themselves destroying milk cartons in grocery stores) and "stealing LeBron's head" (from the toy action figure of basketball player LeBron James).

"It's all teen rebellion, but it's just on a different medium," Mr Gahan said. "There's something innately attractive about conflict and it being rebellious. TikTok allows people to share and display that behaviour on a scale that has not really been available before."

But this rebellion is expensive for schools.

The North East Independent district, in San Antonio, is making students - and their families - pay hundreds of dollars in damages to each school, according to the district. The district has not ruled out pressing charges for more serious thefts.

According to district official Aubrey Chancellor, five out of the six high schools in the district are reporting thefts ranging from stolen soap dispensers to missing fire extinguishers. One school saw shattered mirrors. Custodians and other maintenance staff have to clean up after the students.

"Once we've identified the student, it's the parents who are going to pay," Ms Chancellor said. "It's not monetary. It's the principle of the matter."

Both Ms Brennan and Mr Gahan doubt that either TikTok or school districts will be able to stop the trend, likening any efforts to the Streisand effect - meaning that the more authorities try to deter students from stealing, the more they actually encourage it.

"I'm not saying schools shouldn't send out these notices," Mr Gahan said. "But it might be better to deprive it of oxygen than acknowledge or even push against it."

He might have a point. In one video responding to a finger-wagging administrator, a user wrote: "What I heard: Don't get caught. But keep doing it, cause it's even funnier now."

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