Stealing school property. Reporting a fake school shooter. Using a penny and a cellphone charger to create a spark from an electrical outlet. Eating chips so spicy that they come with an extensive warning label. All while recording yourself, of course.
Those are just a few of the most popular—and for educators, headache rendering—TikTok challenges making the rounds in K-12 schools over the past few years. Some are harmless, while others have caused property damage, resulted in trips to the hospital, and disrupted learning.
What do educators need to know about TikTok challenges? And what are the best ways to address them? Here’s a quick rundown of what educators and experts had to say:
1. Understand how peer pressure and social media combine to fuel risky challenges
TikTok challenges are a kind of mashup between social media—where many Gen Z kids spend a good chunk of their social lives—and the peer pressure and risk-taking behavior that teens have always been susceptible to.
“Developmentally, it’s just tapping into this natural tendency of teens, and then amplifies it and spreads it super-fast,” said Christine Elgersma, the senior editor of learning content strategy at Common Sense Media, which examines the impact of technology on children. “There is a peer pressure element combined with wanting to get that attention, either to go viral or to be a part of the cool thing.”
2. It’s almost impossible to predict or get ahead of every TikTok challenge. So don’t spin your wheels trying
TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company Byte Dance, doesn’t come up with these challenges. Its users do. Some catch on and go viral, spreading across the country and even the world. And a challenge will sometimes seem to disappear for a bit, only to resurface.
Trying to track which ones are hot at any given moment so that your school remains prepared is a wasted effort, Elgersma said. “It’s fairly impossible because they cycle through so quickly,” she said. “You’d have to know exactly who to follow and where these things surface to really get wind of it before it hits the news.”
3. Ask students questions about why they or their peers participate in TikTok challenges. Try not to come across as judgmental
When talking to kids about why these challenges are not good ideas, educators should avoid appearing judgmental or calling the challenges “stupid,” Elgersma said. Instead, they should pick one or two challenges and ask students questions like: Why are these behaviors so popular, even though they can be harmful? How do you find out about new TikTok challenges? Have you participated in any? Why or why not?
Contacting students’ parents and caregivers to give them a heads-up about a particularly dangerous or prevalent challenge is a good idea too. But schools should avoid overhyping the situation, since most kids likely won’t be participating in the challenges, Elgersma added.
4. Let students know there will be consequences for their behavior, especially if it disrupts school
Brian Fleischman, the principal of Overton School, a K-12 school in Nebraska, has known many of his students since they were kindergarteners and thinks he has a pretty good idea who is likely to be susceptible to TikTok challenges.
When he hears of an especially egregious “challenge,” he will talk to some of those students before anything happens. If they are thinking of participating in the challenge, he tells them “‘You’re going to open a Pandora’s box of garbage that you just don’t want to experience. It’s not worth it for 30 seconds of internet fame.’”