Why are kids destroying school property for digital ‘likes’?

Peer pressure is nothing new, but social media has amplified children’s evolutionary need for rebellion. Here’s how parents can help.

From forgotten locker numbers to first loves, Dawn Kiely knew that starting high school would bring new challenges for her two 15-year-old sons. She didn’t think going to the bathroom would be one of them. 

“A few weeks ago, my kids came home and ran straight to the bathroom,” says the mom from West Palm Beach, Florida. “Apparently, they hadn’t been able to use the restroom all day at school, because there were a bunch of kids pulling pranks based on inspiration from TikTok videos—they were removing sinks from the bathroom and pulling up toilets.”

Indeed, a TikTok trend known as “Devious Licks,” in which kids record themselves stealing things from their schools (“lick” is slang for a theft), is resulting in students being suspended and even arrested—and costing school districts across the country thousands of dollars in damages. The trend started small, with one student posting a video of himself pulling a box of disposable masks from his backpack with the caption “absolutely devious lick,” according to the website Know Your Meme. But within a month, people had posted close to 94,200 similar videos using hashtags #deviouslicks or #diabolicallicks, showing everything from stealing pricey microscopes and spray painting walls to allegedly causing more than $10,000 worth of damage discharging fire extinguishers and smashing school bus windows.

This, of course, is not the first social media trend to tempt kids into destructive behavior, and TikTok blocked the hashtag and removed videos after a chorus of complaints. But its widespread influence left educators reeling.

“Devious Licks is one of the fastest-spreading social media challenges I’ve ever seen,” says Giles Crouch, chief digital officer of Sapient.d, which analyzes digital trends. “The fact that it started with stealing things like masks and hand sanitizer makes me think it may be riding the zeitgeist of kids going back to school and their frustration over the pandemic.”

Acting out for peer approval is nothing new, but the possibility of garnering millions of views on TikTok and other social media platforms may be tempting to kids who wouldn’t previously have been susceptible, says Jacqueline Nesi, a Brown University psychology professor who studies social media’s effects.

“I think with any of these social media trends we’re seeing traditional peer influence processes," she says. “But we are seeing them amplified.”

And it’s not just parents of teens who are dealing with this new form of peer pressure. Although federal privacy laws limit access on most social media platforms for those under 13, 32 percent of kids ages seven to nine and 49 percent of kids ages 10 to 12 use social media, according to an Oct. 18 report published by the University of Michigan.

These kinds of virtual dares are becoming a regular part of the kid experience—and one that parents and teachers need to understand and know how to diffuse, Nesi says. Here’s how to get started.

Wired for survival

Kids have been doing dumb things for attention and peer approval since time immemorial, and adults have been carping about it for just as long. In the 1920s, for example, flagpole sitting riveted the nation—and Cosmopolitan called it "competitive imbecility." Twenty years later, college kids took up swallowing live goldfish, prompting Time to call it "among the maddest in the annals of U.S. undergraduates."

While these activities may seem crazy to adults, adolescent risk-taking actually makes developmental sense, says Natasha Duell, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina who studies the subject.

“We need that drive to seek out novel and exciting new experiences so teens can forge their own path, learn to be independent, and learn new hobbies and skills,” she says. “But it can certainly get them into trouble, too.”

Adolescent insanity begins shortly after the onset of puberty, when a deep and ancient part of the brain known as the limbic system sprouts new dopamine receptors. This intensifies teens’ ability to experience pleasure—things that used to feel good begin to feel incredible. 

“There are more dopamine receptors in the adolescent reward centers than any other time in human development,” says Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University psychology professor and the author of Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence. As a result, “teens are more motivated than people of other ages to seek out novel and exciting experiences.”

Meanwhile, the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain involved in self-control—grows new connections between neurons and begins pruning back the ones that aren’t useful. The remaining connections grow a fatty insulation known as myelin, which allows electrical signals to travel from neuron to neuron up to 100 times faster than before. Those fast signals are what help adults quickly weigh consequences and make wise decisions—but the process isn’t complete until your late 20s.

So while the feel-good parts of the teen brain are on overdrive, their “stop and think” neurons can be a bit sluggish. This may seem like a mistake, but it’s actually nature’s way of giving teens the bravery they need to leave home, fall in love, and try new things.

The mere presence of peers further heightens this already souped-up reward system, making teens more likely to take risks if they think anyone their age might be watching. Steinburg and his colleagues discovered this when they put teens and adults in fMRI machines and had them play a driving simulation game. When the teens brought a friend to watch in the next room, they were 2.5 times more likely to run red lights in order to improve their time and win money. When two friends watched, the teens were three times more likely to take risks. Adult participants, in comparison, took the same amount of risk regardless of whether they were being watched by friends.

A follow-up study found a neural basis for this behavior: The presence of peers increased activation in teen participants’ reward systems. Interestingly, teens’ prefrontal cortex activation remained stable, suggesting that though they understand potential consequences, the potential for that dopamine reward outweighs any risk.

Social media, of course, means that kids always have a potential audience and might be motivated to take all sorts of risks to get those high-octane dopamine hits. “Receiving positive feedback or likes on social media activates the same reward centers in the brain activated by drugs and by candy,” Steinberg says.

Talking to kids about peer pressure

Trends like Devious Licks make many parents want to take their kids off social media entirely, but experts say these platforms can still be beneficial since in-person connections are challenging now. Instead, they advise teaching kids to handle social media peer pressure with parenting techniques you probably already use. For instance, Steinberg says to set firm rules and boundaries, but explain your reasoning.

"If you're the kind of parent that’s always saying, 'Do it because I said so,’ you're raising a child who's going to be more susceptible to others saying, 'Do this,’” he says.

Another big-picture way parents can inure kids against peer pressure is by helping them build a solid sense of who they are and who they want to become, says Daphna Oyserman, a professor of education and psychology at the University of Southern California.

“Many kids are expecting to go to college or become rich and famous, but if it seems like there’s nothing they can do right now to get there, or if school seems irrelevant, it’s harder to stay focused,” she says. “It’s helpful to frame decisions in terms of whether they are taking you closer to a possible self you want to be, or a possible self you want to avoid.”

Similarly, Oyserman recommends teaching kids to recognize when their peers are acting as positive forces and providing good behavioral examples, versus when they’re doing the opposite. “Negative forces can be energizing and help you—as long as they trigger you to focus on your own path,” she says.

Nesi adds that it’s also a good idea to keep an eye on what your kids are seeing online and talk about things you find troubling. That’s exactly what Kiely did when her kids came home and told her about Devious Licks.

“We sat down and had a conversation,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Yeah I know that things on TikTok are funny but this is literally destructive. This is not OK.’”

Often children don’t understand the real-world consequences of social media pranks, so parents should also make those clear as well. Kiely was surprised to discover that her sons didn’t think of stealing from school the same way as stealing from an individual. “I think my boys saw it more as a prank that was way over-the-top than as something that would cost the school money and take away from other kinds of activities,” she says.

Guiding your children in a world that’s so different from the one you grew up in can feel disorienting, but Nesi reminds parents that the fundamentals of good parenting remain the same.

“The things we have always known that work for parenting—warmth, communication, structure, setting limits—those kinds of things all still apply when it comes to social media,” she says.

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