At least one lawmaker is calling on TikTok executives to testify in front of a Senate subcommittee over the so-called “devious licks” challenge, a destructive trend targeting schools which rose to popularity on the video-sharing app in early September.
At a press conference on Monday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said school teachers and administrators across the country have seen firsthand the “absolutely destructive effects” of viral video challenges like “devious licks,” which the senator said glorifies theft and vandalism on school properties.
The trend reportedly started to gain traction on Sept. 1, when an unidentified student posted a video with the hashtag #deviouslicks showing what appeared to be a case of disposable masks being taken out of a school in a backpack, per the New York Times. Subsequent videos with the hashtag escalated — with some schools reporting vandalized bathrooms, various stolen items and graffitied walls over the next several weeks.
The trend spanned schools across the country. At least four school districts in Connecticut were targeted by students likely participating in the challenge, officials said Monday; in Florida, at least 10 districts have reported incidents of vandalism or theft since the start of the school year.
California's Coachella Valley Unified School District posted an "urgent announcement" on Sept. 15 warning of the challenge that was "affecting school campuses across the nation," saying any such acts would be subject to disciplinary action. Reports of stolen and damaged items, the school district wrote, included hand towel dispensers, school supplies and fire alarms.
At its peak, the hashtag had nearly 100,000 videos with millions of cumulative views.
The vandalism and thefts have continued despite TikTok’s ban on the hashtag, which took place on or before Sept. 15. A search for the phrase on the app reveals no videos, next to a message that reads in part: “No results found. This message may be associated with behavior or content that violates our guidelines.”
"We expect our community to stay safe and create responsibly, and we do not allow content that promotes or enables criminal activities,” a company spokesperson confirmed to Spectrum News on Tuesday. “We are removing this content and redirecting hashtags and search results to our Community Guidelines to discourage such behavior."
Still, associated hashtags like the misspelled #devousilcks continue to host videos on TikTok — as of Tuesday, a search for "devousilcks" pulled up nearly a dozen videos, although several appeared to be poking fun at the trend.
But for Blumenthal, the ban is “too little, too late,” and does not undo the damages incurred by schools across the country.
“TikTok has aggressively recruited an extremely young user base of children and teens, who have flocked to the platform,” Blumenthal wrote to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew in a letter published Monday. “I am concerned that the Devious Licks trend falls into an unfortunate pattern on TikTok that requires significant attention and commitments to make the platform safer.”
The senator went on to cite a number of other recent challenges on the app that he deemed harmful to teenagers, singling out the “milk crate challenge,” which saw individuals attempt to climb milk crates stacked in a pyramid formation, as well as the “blackout challenge,” where users were encouraged to hold their breath until they passed out, as particularly dangerous.
“TikTok must do more to swiftly find and remove dangerous content before it harms these often young and impressionable users,” Blumenthal wrote in part. “The continual emergence of destructive viral trends is unacceptable and reflects the fact that TikTok is simply not doing enough to ensure that its product is safe.”
Blumenthal, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security, said the group will hold a hearing “within coming weeks” to inform parents how social media companies like TikTok work to protect children from dangerous content.
The senator said he “fully expect(s) your company to participate, particularly in light of this alarming new trend,” saying he formally invited representatives to attend. A date for the hearing has not yet been confirmed, a spokesperson for Blumenthal told Spectrum News on Tuesday.
TikTok did not answer emailed questions about whether a representative planned to attend the upcoming meeting.