The internet’s capacity to solve problems, connect people and make life more enjoyable is ever expanding and fascinating. But the web is also a sandbox for buffoons. And platforms such as TikTok have an absolute responsibility to keep a check on illegal behavior, even if it’s only suggested.
The latest abrogation of the moral imperative about power and responsibility, whether you’re quoting Spider-Man or the Gospel of Luke, is the devious lick. That’s the name of the meme wherein teenagers, mostly, document the theft or destruction of items in school bathrooms, mostly, on the social media app TikTok.
USAToday reports the root of the vandalism and kleptomania traces to a user stealing, or “licking,” a supply of disposable masks. This act most certainly affected any number of people who also needed a mask, but regardless was documented, and widely viewed, in a TikTok video.
Why anyone cared to celebrate this delinquency with their own theft of a soap dispenser or vandalism of a toilet is a mystery known only to the internet. That the mimicry became meme, with countless others following with spasms of destruction, is a sad commentary on the struggles of youth to distinguish between what one sees on a smart phone and what one does in real life.
Lest you think all of our children are above average, it’s happened here, too. School officials are beginning the year with reminders not only about attendance and dress codes but discipline, restitution and the possibility of criminal charges.
Haverhill High School, for instance, pledges “school-based consequences,” demands for payment and, if necessary, a call to the cops for acts of destruction, according to staff writer Mike LaBella’s report.
“Please know that while there have been several unacceptable acts of vandalism, these acts have been mainly minor,” Principal Jason Meland wrote to parents. Indeed, the meme has spawned parodies and given rise to all sorts of rumors. At Haverhill High, anyway, stories of “large-scale destruction of property are inaccurate,” its principal says.
To be sure, this phenomenon of people losing their inhibition and common sense on an app isn’t confined to teens and TickTock. It afflicts adults trading misinformation on Facebook and Twitter. And, in some cases the memes are dangerous, as was the case with the “blackout challenge” that spread on TikTok and involved holding one’s breath for as long as possible. A tech news website recently compiled a list of TikTok challenges that put people in the hospital.
The people behind these platforms are notoriously slow to respond when their users go veering widely into idiocy and criminality. In the most recent case, TikTok finally banned the hashtag #deviouslick and blocked its videos. Still, users intent on keeping the meme alive have found ways to circumvent the ban using different hashtags.
“While TikTok has taken steps to remove these videos, these actions were too little, too late, and do not make up for the damage to schools across the country,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., wrote in a letter to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew.
Stolen soap dispensers are child’s play. As was documented by the U.S. Justice Department following the 2016 election, the stakes and impact of social media persuasion can be much greater. In that case, it was the content creators at the Russian Internet Research Agency sowing misinformation and falsehoods across social media sites like corn seed across Iowa.
The devious lick challenge goes to show that four years later the next generation is still just as pliable and open to the suggestion of social media as their parents and grandparents are.
Not only do we have that to worry about, if you’re unlucky enough to need to use a school bathroom, you’ll probably have to go searching for hand soap.