Social media has put a modern twist on the age-old tradition of senior pranks. But it’s also playing a role in the punishments that result when evidence of pranks that have gone too far pops up on Instagram and TikTok.
Whether destructive or just fun and clever, senior pranks often go viral on social media. In the second category, take the viral prank that happened this year in the final weeks of school at St. Andrew’s School, a private school in Middletown, Del. Joy McGrath, the head of the school, woke up in the middle of the night to find 70 graduating seniors in her living room. The encounter, recorded by senior Austin Chang, attracted 22 million page views on Instagram and 5 million TikTok views.
Since St. Andrews is a boarding school, the faculty and staff live on campus, so McGrath said that having students in her house is not unusual. The video’s viral rise came as a shock to the St. Andrews faculty and staff.
“I loved finding the students in my house,” McGrath said.
The students coordinated the prank with McGrath’s husband. He allowed for them to “sneak in” to their house at 1 a.m. and worked with the dean of the school and dining services to order a coffee bar and donuts to the house for students to enjoy after pulling off the prank.
At St. Andrews, students are not allowed to have cell phones. The video was never intended to get the amount of attention that it did because it was originally posted for the small number of alumni and parents who follow the school’s Instagram account.
“No one would have thought that tens of millions of people would be interested in it,” said McGrath.
Trinity Smith, a co-president of the senior class, said the prank reflects the bond students share with their school.
“I think one reason why the video took off is because a lot of people can’t logistically fathom how a class could come together in this way and commit to doing this,” Smith told a Delaware News Journal reporter.
McGrath said that the prank was “absolutely delightful,” and detailed what she thinks makes a great senior prank.
“I think great senior pranks have three qualities: 1) they are novel; 2) when revealed, the organization and planning behind them is evident; 3) they are harmless,” McGrath said. “The prank at St. Andrew’s hit all three marks!”
In St. Paul, Minn., Principal Cherise Ayers of Central High School was similarly understanding when seniors hauled a car from two blocks away and then up two flights of stairs to the school’s entrance as their senior prank this year.
“I told the seniors that I understand pranks may happen, but they should not be disrespectful, dangerous, or disgusting and should not require excessive clean-up from staff,” Ayers said. “We had three pranks, and for the most part they managed to comply with that.”
When pranks take a wrong turn
But other pranks played out on social media this year would not have met McGrath’s standards for what qualifies as a “great senior prank.”
One such prank in the Alamance-Burlington School System in Burlington, N.C., led to 80 students being barred from the school’s graduation ceremony. Although they still received diplomas, they were unable to participate and celebrate their graduation with their peers.
The students poured cement into the toilets in the bathrooms, causing a huge mess and costly damage.
In a statement released on June 1, following the senior prank, the local school board said that the students’ actions damaged eight toilets and six urinals, costing the school $4,000.
“These students were identified entering our school buildings,” the statement said, adding that seven were identified and subsequently charged by the Burlington Police Department.
In an update to the investigation into the prank, the school district shared photos of the damages caused to pipes, hardwood floors, desks, furniture, and walls, as well as bathrooms.
Many of the photos were first shared by students involved in the prank on social media platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram. The images served as evidence against students as the school district and the police department built the case on the prank.
Alex Solari, a senior at Williams High School in the district, admitted “leading the pack” to WXIA-TV. Because of the fines, he said he has picked up a summer job to pay his part and has apologized for his involvement in the destructive prank.
“What we did is completely unacceptable. It was a prank, and it definitely went overboard,” Solari said in the interview. “I am deeply apologetic to everyone involved.”
“There wasn’t a lot of thinking in this obviously,” Solari added. “There was definitely a lot of regret.”
In a similar situation, students in West Milford, N.J., were given punishments for their involvement in their senior prank.
According to News12 New Jersey, students put track hurdles in school hallways, dumped dry dog food on desks, and covered classrooms in shredded paper and toilet paper. Initially, West Milford High School Principal Matthew Striane did not condemn the prank, saying, “this can hardly be viewed as egregious” in a June 12 letter to the community.
But once videos of the prank were shared on social media, commenters chimed in.
“Just saw the video [of the prank on TikTok],” read a TikTok comment. “That’s not a prank. It’s criminal.”
The school board called a meeting to discuss “student matters and personal matters.” The next morning, students who had been involved were notified of their punishment in an email from the assistant principal—a three-day, in-school suspension.
Social media platforms’ guidelines
Many social media sites, such as TikTok, have guidelines regarding what can and cannot be posted and these are meant to keep dangerous content or false information from being circulated. But the company said that, while some of the viral senior prank videos may seem dangerous, they do not violate TikTok’s community guidelines to the point where they need to be removed from the platform.
According to those guidelines, removals should be for videos that promote dangerous behavior that could lead to serious injury. Examples of videos that would get removed are those that have to do with self-harm, eating disorders, dangerous challenges or activities, and those that may threaten viewers’ mental health.
If TikTok users believe action in videos is dangerous or the video itself is harmful, the videos can be reported to TikTok. Through its Safety Center, TikTok has created a guide for online challenges so users can assess whether it is a good idea to engage in the challenge.
Similarly to TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram also have their own community guidelines for dangerous or inappropriate content. Snapchat does not allow content that is sexually explicit, shows bodily harm, includes harassment or bullying, or anything that alludes to violence, extremism, or terrorism. Instagram will take down content that showcases violence, hate speech, or harassment.
Because many of the senior pranks showcase property damage and violation but no people are being harmed, they do not violate any social media guidelines to the point of needing to be taken down.
But some of the pranks captured on social media did violate their schools’ own rules and regulations.
Experts weigh in
As the temptation to go viral becomes more widespread, though, experts predict students may be more inclined to share content that may get them in trouble.
Zoey Yue, is a research fellow at the Digital Wellness Lab whose research is focused on social media and well-being.
“Emerging studies have indicated that negative and sensational content tends to spread rapidly on social media platforms, giving rise to concerns such as misinformation and negative emotion contagion,” she said.
Christine Elgersma, senior editor for learning content strategy at Common Sense Media, a research and advocacy group, agreed. “We often see teens... posting iffy behavior without thinking about consequences,” she said.“The potent combination of child development and the ease of posting on social media often leads to unexpected impacts.”
She urged students to think about their digital footprints and their futures.
“We do know higher education institutions and hiring professionals check someone’s socials as a part of the vetting process,” Elgersma said. “We often witness people’s old posts coming back to haunt them, so it’s possible that a prank resulting in disciplinary action can also resurface when someone is getting vetted for something.”
Educating children about those risks is part of Elgersma’s job at Common Sense Media.
“Getting teens to reflect on potential consequences before these moments happen is really important,” she said. That way, when they’re in the thick of it, they may have a little voice in the back of their heads reminding them that everything online is permanent, and someone down the road who’s making decisions about their lives may see it.”
Holly Peele, Library Director contributed to this article.