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The Grown-up Hysteria Around TikTok’s Devious Licks

Photo: Tim Berghman/Getty Images

In-person school is finally back, and apparently, already the kids are running wild. You have to look no further than TikTok, where the “Devious Licks Challenge” is making school administrators, internet moralists, and even a U.S. Senator despair for the wayward youth and the app they claim is abetting their depredation. To read through the media’s and institutional responses to the trend is to encounter an adult population who willfully misunderstands, and forgets, what it’s like to be a teen, and what you often end up doing when you’re told not to do something.

For background: It all began when a teenager on the app posted a video of himself taking a stolen box of face masks out of his school backpack (a “lick,” according to Urban Dictionary, is a “successful type of theft”). Then, when another user posted a similar video, unzipping his JanSport to reveal a hand-sanitizer dispenser, with the caption “Only a month into school and got this absolute devious lick,” the trend exploded, with the video racking up over 7.2 million views in two days.

Now there are hundreds of the TikToks, showing students at high schools across the country supposedly stealing school security cameras, science-lab equipment, and school supplies. It’s like Heathers, if the students all became kleptomaniacs and not something more tragicomic (though I suppose the real Winona Ryder does have a shoplifting record).

The majority of the TikToks take place in school restrooms, where students pull sinks and soap dispensers from the walls, upend toilets from the floor, and smash mirrors into smithereens. Some are naughtier than others, showing students, again, supposedly, taking Chromebooks, car parts off their principals’ wheels, and classroom pets, like one unlucky lizard stuffed into a backpack. Others are simply standard-fare teenage bullying — like students stealing tennis shoes off unsuspecting feet from under restroom stalls — or just straight-up gross: see the one teen plundering urinal cakes with his bare hands. “Dawg every school fighting for their life rn,” reads the caption on one video. Naturally, most of the burglars are boys.

Watch any local-television coverage of the trend, and you’d think America’s public schools have descended into anarchy. And the law-and-order crackdown has begun. According to USA Today, students as young as 15 years old have been arrested and charged in states including Kentucky, Florida, Arizona, and Alabama for offenses including vandalism, theft, and criminal mischief.

Now, even Congress is getting involved, with Senator Blumenthal of Connecticut calling on TikTok’s CEO to testify in front of a Senate subcommittee about how it affects “often young and impressionable users.” By last Wednesday, the company went so far as to ban any content with #despicablelicks and announced on Twitter, “We’re removing content and redirecting hashtags & search results to our Community Guidelines to discourage such behavior. Please be kind to your schools & teachers.” The videos now survive mostly in the form of YouTube compilations.

In Florida, the Polk County sheriff’s office posted on Facebook, “There’s only 100 days left until Christmas. Parents — remind your kids that Santa is watching.” An op-ed by the writer Kristen Mei Chase in the Washington Post took the silly paternalism one step further, blaming the trend on a “perfect storm combining the lag in the development of the prefrontal cortex during the teenage years and the children’s need for community and belonging, as well as the dopamine rush from likes, comments and views.” As for a solution to the problem? Chase recommends sitting down with your child to explain what it means to be a “good digital citizen,” and reading the community guidelines on downloaded apps together. Where, I wonder, in TikTok’s community guidelines does it command, “Thou shalt not steal urinal cakes from your place of education”?

For all the real-life vandalism, what is also very real is that some of these teen punks might be punking us all too. One student, Gavino, a 17-year-old high schooler in Minnesota, uploaded a video showing a classroom sink gushing water, describing it as a “Devious Lick” gone wrong. When I contacted him over Snapchat, however, he told me he wasn’t actually trying to poach the faucet. It was broken, so he made a video about it. When I reached out to another student, a 14-year-old, who posted a TikTok stuffing Chromebooks into his backpack, he told me he didn’t even take them out of the building.

“Seeing people do it, others think they can ‘one-up’ the last person and get something better without getting caught,” Gavino said, adding, “It’s just being funny, trying to get five seconds of fame on a big platform.” Said a 17-year-old girl in L.A., who posted a video “stealing” a microscope from her science lab (she actually owned it, and she filmed the TikTok at home), “I made the video because obviously it was trending. Mostly, it’s for internet clout. And to be funny. It’s not a ‘fitting in’ type of thing. It’s literally just for clout, to show off or … whatever.

The Grown-up Hysteria Around TikTok’s Devious Licks