Forget 'The Kids These Days'; It's The Adults And Their Moral Panics To Worry About
from the truly-devious-licks dept
A recent episode of the Reply All podcast, Absolutely Devious Lick, touched on a bunch of interesting points regarding the never-ending debates about social media, content moderation, and how it’s supposedly damaging the kids these days. It’s worth listening to the entire episode, but it begins by talking about a very slightly viral TikTok “challenge” which became known as Devious Licks — lick being slang for something you stole. It started with a kid putting up a TikTok video of him holding a box of disposable masks, suggesting that he had stolen it from the school. Because school kids sometimes do stupid things to copy their stupid friends, a few others posted similar videos, including one early one of a kid taking a soap dispenser. And then there were some stories of it spreading and people going more extreme, because, you know, kids. But it didn’t seem to spread that far initially.
But, of course, the thing became a lot more viral after mainstream media jumped on it with their typical “OMG, the kids these days” kind of coverage, starting with the New York Times, CNN, USA Today and then like every random local news jumping on the trend to tsk tsk about the kids these days.
Prominent grandstanding Senator, Richard Blumenthal called on TikTok execs to testify over all of this, which turned into another ridiculous Senate hearing in which old men yell at social media execs about how they’re harming kids.
But, scratch the surface a little, and beyond a few dumb kids, this seems a lot more like adults over-reacting and freaking out, and making the story go much, much, much more viral than it did in reality. Indeed, the only news organization I’ve seen that recognized that most of this was a moral panic by adults was Curbed, which noted that, yes, there was some actual vandalism done by kids, but a lot of it seemed to be kids mocking the trend as well:
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.?
Meanwhile, pretty damn early in all of this, TikTok banned the “Devious Lick” tag and told people searching for it to knock it off:
Also, as far as I can tell, none of the media orgs that covered the whole moral panic freak-out noted that a bunch of kids started to counterprogram whatever vandalism occurred in the opposite direction, posting the opposite of “devious licks”: angelic yields, where they would show themselves adding new items to schools (often school bathrooms, since so many of the devious licks stories were about soap and toilet paper being taken from bathrooms).
And that brings us back around to the Reply All episode, which followed a secondary freak-out, after the Devious Licks challenge, in which a document was being passed around claiming to have pre-planned a bunch of other “challenges” for kids in school throughout the rest of the school year. Each month, the posting suggested, kids were planning to do crazy stupid shit (I mean, more crazy and more stupid than any normal teenager) in schools… for TikTok. But, as Reply All’s Anna Foley noted, everything about the story just seemed weird — including (1) teenagers actually planning shit out for an entire school year, and (2) the language on the document didn’t sound at all like kids (“slap a teacher on the backside“?!?!?).
Foley started investigating and… basically tracked it down to adults freaking out. She found a School Resource Officer (SRO) who had been early posting the list to Facebook, who didn’t seem particularly concerned at all whether or not it was accurate or not — taking the typical “better safe than sorry” kind of approach. And from there, she traced it back to a school superintendent who claimed she had gotten it from students, though wouldn’t say who. But what becomes pretty clear is that almost no kids were passing it around or seriously considering it.
Indeed, there’s a hilarious moment in the podcast in which Foley quotes posts from kids laughing and mocking all the adults falling for this nonsense.
It’s hard not to look at this like any other moral panic by adults who somehow have forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager. Are there teenagers doing stupid stuff — including some theft and vandalism? Yes, of course. Because that’s something teenagers do. I mean, I did stupid shit as a teenager too. But, the idea that this is something new, or is caused by social media doesn’t really get much support in reality. It does seem like the real “disinformation” came from the adults, not the kids, and the people who bought into it were the adults, not the kids — and the leading vector of it being sent around was the mainstream media, not social media.
But I don’t see Senator Blumenthal calling the head of CNN, the NY Times, and USA Today to come testify about their role in spreading “devious lick” news to gullible adults. Because then he’d have to admit that he, too, is a silly gullible adult.