Vanessa Elias is a Wilton parent and founder of Thrive with a Guide, LLC. She’s a certified parent coach, speaker, and NAMI parent support group facilitator whose work has been featured in NPR, PBS, and the WSJ. She takes a look at the recent TikTok challenge that has kids nationwide stealing and damaging school property — even in Wilton — and has some suggestions for Wilton parents.
This September, 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.”
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.
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.
Our little bucolic town of Wilton has not been spared — we too have students who have taken up this challenge. [See sidebar at end of story]
“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 possibly 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 the challenge, what they think about it, if they’ve seen it at school, or do they know any people who have done it. Open the door to dialogue. Be curious without badgering. Work to keep your words (and body language) free of judgment, 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 behavior, 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 or damage, it has the potential to keep on giving when they get likes and comments on whatever they post on social media. This is especially tempting given they are witnesses to other kids on social media who have achieved celebrity status by what they have shared in posts online.
Approaching it as a brain deficiency, and not a character one, 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.
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 administrators and staff.
Furthermore, they run the risk of joining the many students across the country who have had criminal charges brought against them.
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, no soap or paper towels. Then have them imagine they have an upset stomach at school.
What if your child is one of the kids who did do the damage?
The first agenda item is to reframe your thinking. Don’t go down the rabbit hole of thinking you’ve raised a derelict or that you have completely failed as a parent. 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.
Wilton Public School Superintendent Kevin Smith confirmed there have been “several isolated incidents” of vandalism in bathrooms at both Middlebrook Middle School and Wilton High School that administrators believe were connected to the TikTok challenge.
“For the most part, the perpetrators have been identified and we have not had any further incidents in the last week or so. It’s infuriating to think that our students would engage in such disrespectful behavior and I am disappointed in those that did. We follow our discipline policies in responding,” Smith told GMW.
Smith listed the damage at each school:
- Two soap dispensers were taken off the wall, fortunately not broken
- Rock put in a urinal
- Soap dispensers put in a toilet
- Front of soap dispensers taken off
- Paper towels strewn around the bathroom, water left running in the sink
- Toilets backed up
- A student knocked down an exit sign with a lacrosse stick and another student posted a picture to social media. That student has been identified and the sign recovered.
The damage at WHS was far more serious:
- At least 12 soap and hand sanitizer dispensers torn from walls, and some thrown into toilets
- Three paper towel dispensers removed from the walls and damaged
- A soap dispenser emptied and the soap spread across the floor. The bathroom had to be closed for the remainder of the day.
- Handwritten graffiti found on bathroom walls
- A hand sanitizer station was stolen, and the stand placed in a toilet
- Bathroom stall partitions damaged or removed from the wall and floor
The damage at the high school occurred during the course of two days (Sept. 15-16); there have been no new occurrences. At Middlebrook, the vandalism took place episodically between Sept. 13-24.
I appreciate the emphasis in this article, not on the probably more “click-bait”-able bad choices, but what parents can do to use this as a learning and growing moment with their kids. Thank you, Vanessa.
Very nicely done, Vanessa! Well-reasoned and do-able suggestions here, around an extremely troubling issue.
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