The Pernicious Influence of Social Media on Adolescents in 2021 and Beyond

As if schools, especially teachers, don’t have enough to contend with, we can now add vandalism to the growing list of stressors. Apparently owing to a trend started in social media, namely TikTok, students are engaging in acts of vandalism, and everything from ripping off soap dispensers to destroying bathroom stalls is fair game. Known as Devious Licks, the trend seems to be gaining ground across the United States. 

Minnesota is no exception. As reported by CBS News, “A nationwide TikTok trend involving students stealing items from their schools and posting swaggering videos online afterward has prompted at least two Twin Cities schools to crack down this week, boosting security and surveillance.”

Connecticut is having Devious Lick issues also. According to the Hartford Courant, “At Glastonbury High School, clogged toilets and vandalized paper towel dispensers have been linked to the challenge.” 

To the north in Vermont, school officials bemoan that “stolen and vandalized items included many things found in school bathrooms such as soap and hand sanitizer dispensers, paper towel holders, mirrors, and even sinks,” and “. . .packaged rapid Covid-19 tests, fire extinguishers, fire alarm handles, computer equipment, pieces of ceiling tiles, microscopes from science labs, plasticware from cafeterias and even a wallet that was allegedly taken from a teacher.” 


Students participating in the TikTok Devious Lick challenge are taking a toll on their schools
Source: popbuzz.comDitto in Tennessee, where Newsweek found that  “Officials of the Williamson County School District have reported bathroom soap dispensers missing, ceiling tiles ripped down, paper towels clogging toilets, urinals broken and other vandalism.  

And even in the heartland of interior Ohio, Devious Licks is making its presence known.  Laura Sprague of Johnston Community School District stated,  “In restrooms, we’ve seen things like soap dispensers, a handicap bar and then we’ve also had things like teacher’s phones being taken, their doorstops and it just sort of goes up from there.” 

To the west in California, Devious Licks is making rounds at the Murrieta Valley Unified School District in the Inland Empire, where school officials “sent out a memo to parents this week that said middle and high schools have had ‘soap dispensers, fixed signage, a computer monitor, and hand sanitizer stations torn out of walls causing thousands of dollars worth of damage.’” 

From sea to shining sea, American youth are destroying their schools and then sharing it on social media as a bragging point. Something is definitely wrong, people.

And while it would be expedient, and possibly accurate to lay the blame on Tiktok, which is working to take down these videos, I suspect much more is at play, something deeper in the collective psyche of America at work. 

To begin with, we have to understand the value that peers play in school, particularly middle school and high school, where most of the vandalism is taking place. Most parents recognize from personal experience the influence peers have on each other.

Science acknowledges this dynamic as well. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry states: “They can encourage each other to skip classes, steal, cheat, use drugs or alcohol, share inappropriate material online, or become involved in other risky behaviors. The majority of teens with substance abuse problems began using drugs or alcohol as a result of peer pressure. This pressure can happen in person or on social media.” 

Additionally, there is an odd counterpoint that complicates our understanding of school vandalism. That’s because while most kids do not engage in vandalism, they seem to promote a subtle, tacit approval of such acts. As Kelly Dedel of the Arizona State University  Center for Problem-Oriented Policing points out, “. . .vandalism is a behavior that students can perform without the risk of condemnation by other students.” 

Dedel also makes an explicit connection to the social aspects of vandalism, stating, “One can better understand the behavior when considering it in the context of adolescence, when peer influence is a particularly powerful motivator. Most delinquent acts are carried out by groups of youths, and vandalism is no exception. Participating in vandalism often helps a youth to maintain or enhance his or her status among peers. This status comes with little risk since, in contrast to playing a game or fighting, there are no winners or losers.” This underscores the social nature of not only vandalism specifically, but of adolescence in general. 

Unfortunately, vandalism is not new behavior for adolescents. Dr. Recco Richardson, a child psychologist at Hurley Medical Center, believes the problem is that some kids see the world in an oppositional manner, leading to defiant behavior.

Richardson argues, “When kids act out in that manner, sometimes it’s anger, sometimes it’s boredom, sometimes it’s a lack of supervision by their parents. But there is a growing number of kids that are teenagers that are just flat-out rebellious. That perfect parenting in the perfect home, there can still be a child that does these types of things.”

Parents still play a major role, however, and can help their kids make more constructive decisions. But it cuts both ways. If parents are too self-absorbed with their own life stressors and demands to really engage with their pre-adolescent and adolescent children, they may act out in unusual ways to gain attention or to assert some sense of control over an environment they feel is chaotic or unresponsive. 

As a recent report highlights, “When parents become depressed, angry, and sullen with one another and have increased conflict, the result is often harsh and inconsistent parenting or withdrawal. For adolescents, that can mean increases in risky behavior and less development of the sorts of competencies that protect them from those risks.” 

The added twist here is, of course, social media, which amplifies the peer pressure and rebellious behaviors that are building during this tumultuous phase of life. Many adolescents post content, even inappropriate content, because it buys them a form of social acceptance, which is increasingly important to an adolescent.

As Roberta Liggett and Stephanie Ueberal wite for the Citizens Crime Commission of New York, “The need for popularity also increases self-interested behaviors, which makes it more difficult to take other’s feelings and perspectives into account. Moreover, these users often feel additional social media anxiety, which pressures them to behave in a way that garners ‘likes,’ which can lead to the spreading of harmful content online if it is reinforced (Feiler, 2014). This is even more impactful for teens, where 39% report feeling pressured to  only post content that they believe will  get them lots of comments or likes (Lenhart, 2015).” 

These are ultimately narcissistic behaviors because the kids who commit these acts have a disconnect between their behaviors and the impact it has on others. So, any measures aimed at reducing these kinds of behaviors will have to help kids understand the consequences of their behaviors not just on themselves, but on their immediate school community.

Moreover, schools may need to “flip the script” and have students start posting content that shows them acting positively and altruistically. The challenge will be to generate the same enthusiasm and “likes’ that antisocial behavior seems to garner on social media spaces. And if TikTok is really interested in helping, they should take an active role in forming partnerships with schools and communities to that end. That would be a worthy challenge, indeed. 

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