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Talking to Kids About the TikTok Bathroom Destruction Challenge

Dr. J. Stuart Ablon

The new school year is just getting started, and students are finally back in the building. Unfortunately, many school districts are sending home emails about yet another dangerous new social media challenge on TikTok, the “Devious Lick” Bathroom Vandalism Challenge.

What is the “Devious Lick” challenge on TikTok?

On TikTok, students record themselves vandalizing school bathrooms and then encourage classmates to do the same and share their destruction videos. Schools are finding missing or broken soap dispensers, damaged plumbing and fixtures, and extensive paint and toilet paper messes. This is an especially hard time given the importance of handwashing and keeping bathrooms clean to limit the spread of Covid. It is also providing ample opportunity for students to visit the restroom more often. This “challenge” seems to play out in middle and high schools, but that doesn’t mean your younger child, who doesn’t have unsupervised access to the Internet, won’t learn about dangerous social media challenges at school through peers with older siblings.

What Should a Parent/Guardian Do?

The most important advice to give people when talking to our kids about difficult things is to talk less and listen more. While it can be comforting to us to prepare some sage words to pass onto our kids, the best thing we can do when we are concerned about something they are seeing, reading, or hearing about is to listen to them. We really can’t know what to say until we understand more about their understanding of and reaction to something in the first place.

We, adults, tend to be wordy. So if you need to start a conversation like this, bring the topic up neutrally and succinctly. Perhaps something like: “Have you heard of this thing called “Devious Licks” on TikTok or the Bathroom Vandalism Challenge?” Then ask for information: “What do you think of it?” And bite your tongue. You may well be rewarded by having a chance to hear their perspective, their point of view, or perhaps even what worries or concerns them about something like the Vandalism Challenge. You can ask plenty of clarifying questions like, “Why do they think kids are participating when they clearly know it’s wrong to do so?” If they simply shrug their shoulders or offer the all too common, “I don’t know,” you can make some educated guesses. Is it peer pressure, to garner attention and be “cool,” or are they hoping to gain followers and clout on social media?

Once we hear them out, we will be in a better position to try to answer any questions our kids may have to the best of our ability. And yes, then (after listening to them first) we can provide critical adult perspective and advice while setting the clear expectation that this kind of behavior is not acceptable by explaining our concerns, including that this behavior is illegal and could have serious consequences. But it remains still more important to ask questions, reflect what we hear from them, and show interest in hearing more from them since they probably already know that this kind of behavior is not acceptable. This advice applies to all disturbing or confusing content or undesirable behaviors seen on the Internet or anywhere else, for that matter. Because ultimately, if we want our kids to listen to us, we should start by showing them how we listen to them!

If you are pretty confident this hasn’t happened in your child’s school yet, it can still be important to have this conversation proactively. And if you want to know more about what’s going on in their social media world, make sure to follow them on social! Nothing like seeing things firsthand to put us in a good position to ask questions and learn more from our kids directly. If, however, you already know your child was involved in something like this, your first instinct is probably to take their phone / social media access away or issue other punishments. While understandable, reactions like this rarely address the issues that give rise to challenging behavior. As hard as it can be when furious at or disappointed in our children, try listening first if you want to solve the problem in a durable way.


This article originally appeared on Psychology Today.

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