This fall, middle and high school students across the country have been filming themselves stealing soap dispensers and doing other damage in a TikTok challenge dubbed “Devious Licks.” Slang for theft, the goal is to steal or damage school property.
The challenge started when a student stole a box of disposable masks from school in California, recorded it and posted it on the social media platform along with the caption, “A month into school absolutely devious lick. Should’ve brought a mask from home.” The hashtag #deviouslicks is no longer allowed by TikTok, but the challenge had already gained popularity and is still trending nationwide weeks later, with just the spelling of the hashtag changed.
Furthermore, it seems that this school challenge is now intended to be the first of many. There is a list circulating that suggests there are more challenges to come every month of this school year. Hard to believe that there are students in the little bucolic towns of Easton and Redding who have taken up this challenge.
“Not my kid,” most parents think, but the reality is that it is someone your kids are connected to on social media, or are friends with or even — your kid.
It may be tempting to write them off as “bad kids.” We absolutely must not. They are still good kids — just doing things they shouldn’t be doing. As parents, it’s critical that we help our kids understand why this challenge, and others like it, are so tempting — and damaging. How do you do this?
FIRST, BE CURIOUS: Find a moment when everyone’s been fed and the day has settled and let your kids know you’d like to talk to them. Tell them what you know and ask them if they’ve heard about it, what they think about it, have they seen it or have any people they know have done it. Open the door to dialogue. Be curious without badgering. Work to keep your words (and body language) free of judgement as nothing shuts down communication faster.
KNOW THE ADOLESCENT BRAIN: Remember and explain that tweens and teens have underdeveloped brains, specifically the prefrontal cortex which is the rational, thinking part of the brain that understands consequences. Teens still process information with the more primitive part of the brain, the amygdala, which is the emotion and reactive center of the brain. This makes it more likely for them to take risks and harder for them to control their impulses and their behaviour, but it is still possible! (The good news is that the more they pause and stop, the more that part of the brain develops!)
On top of that, dopamine levels peak during adolescence and this massively increases the desire for risk taking and gives them a surge of the “feel good” hormone and neurotransmitter.
The lure of the dopamine hit doesn’t just end with the act of theft of damage, it has the potential to keep on giving by getting likes and comments on what they post on social media. This is especially tempting given they are witness to kids on social media who have achieved celebrity status by what they have shared in posts.
Approaching it as a brain, not a character, deficiency is super important in being effective in preventing (or stopping) this behavior.
Explain that you understand the challenges they face in making good choices, but you know they can grow their brains to do so.
PRACTICAL CONSEQUENCES: The reality is that students have a, generously put, limited understanding of the true impact of their behavior. Help them understand that this damage and loss costs the schools (and us tax paying residents) money. Plus it’s a hassle for school admin and staff.
Furthermore, they run the risk of joining the many students across the country who have had criminal charges brought against them.
DIGITAL FOOTPRINT: They’ve heard it a million times before about the importance of being a good digital citizen, but reminding them of their digital footprint is a good idea. Use the power of our cultural holy grail of achievement — college acceptance — to remind them that colleges can always find what’s posted, even if you think it’s private or deleted.
ASK, “WHAT IF EVERYBODY DID THAT?” There is a great children’s picture book, What If Everybody Did That?, in which children learn that there are consequences to their thoughtless actions. A child might think, “big deal, it’s just one soap dispenser,” but ask them to consider, what if everybody did that? Imagine classrooms without school supplies or bathrooms with no toilet paper, no locks on doors, soap or paper towels. Then have them imagine they have an upset stomach at school.
TOO LATE? What if your child is one of the kids who did damage? The first agenda item is to reframe your thinking. Don’t go down the rabbit hole of having raised a derelict or that you have completely failed as a parent. Nor should you dismiss it with a “kids will be kids.” Reread from the top. This is a teaching moment and important to address. Give them the opportunity to fix what was damaged or replace what they have taken. This is how adolescent brains grow.
About the Author
Vanessa Elias is a mental health activist, certified parent coach, speaker, and writer featured on NPR, PBS, and in the WSJ. She is the founder of Thrive with a Guide, LLC and serves as a group facilitator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Block Party USA is her passion project. Vanessa helps parents achieve healthier family relationships and lasting, meaningful connections.