Classroom Technology

TikTok Challenges Are a Nightmare for Schools. How Should Educators Respond?

By Alyson Klein — October 06, 2022 7 min read
Illustration of a hand reaching out from a phone controlling the puppet strings of a young person
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Assistant principal Dana Perez got the email from her district just in time, warning her that kids were having some severe reactions—vomiting and abdominal pain—after recording themselves eating super spicy potato chips to feature on TikTok. She quickly learned this was happening at her Connecticut school too.

Perez, who struggled to deal with a TikTok challenge last school year that called for students to steal school property was glad to at least get a heads-up on this latest social media craze.

She made an announcement during the lunch period at Rogers Park Middle School in Danbury, Conn., telling students: “We’re over the chips. Don’t do it. I don’t want to see them.”

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The so-called “one chip” challenge —in which students film themselves for TikTok eating a Pacqui chip, marketed as the “world’s spiciest” and packaged with extensive safety warnings—has sent students across the country to the school nurse’s office, and even to the hospital, according to local reports.

It’s just the latest in a string of viral challenges on the video platform, among the most popular apps for teenagers, that’s causing headaches for educators.

Some challenges require kids to consume something gross and potentially dangerous, such as Tide laundry detergent tabs; an entire spoonful of cinnamon, which can cause gagging, choking, and even vomiting or nosebleeds; and chicken cooked in NyQuil, which the Food and Drug Administration cautioned could be harmful to your lungs.

Others are more daredevil-oriented: Run a gauntlet of backpacks swinging at you—while on camera, of course; take large doses of Benadryl to induce hallucinations; or hold your breath until you pass out. There’s even a TikTok challenge in which participants call the local police to falsely report an active school shooting.

A few years ago, some schools called their local fire departments in response to damage caused by the “outlet challenge, in which users placed a phone charger near an electrical outlet, then dropped a penny between the outlet and the charger prongs, for a share-worthy spark.

In many ways, this type of behavior isn’t anything new, educators and experts say. Adolescents have always been risk-takers, susceptible to group pressure. But TikTok challenges add a social media twist to those developmental tendencies, giving teens’ bad decisions a global forum.

When Brian Fleischman was in high school decades ago, “the peer pressure was to drink and things like that,” recalled the now-principal of Overton Public School in Nebraska. “Well, now, the peer pressure is to do these crazy social media things.”

"[Kids’ self-esteem is] so much about how many ‘likes’ do I get, how many ‘hearts’ do I get, or ‘favorites’ or retweets? That’s how, unfortunately, kids are gauging their acceptance within their peer groups. That outweighs common sense with them far too often,” he said.

The number of challenges that have taken place on school grounds has increased in recent years, said Christine Elgersma, the senior editor of learning content strategy at Common Sense Media, which examines the impact of technology on children.

In fact, last school year was the first one in which she saw challenges that were school specific, such as the “Slap a Teacher” challenge. There’s some question as to whether that challenge was mostly a hoax, though some educators around the country report that it happened in their schools.

Last school year also saw the infamous “Devious Licks” challenge, which required students to steal something from their schools, resulting in empty soap dispensers, missing fire extinguishers, and far worse destruction.

“I almost closed our bathrooms forever,” Perez jokingly recalled.

Challenges are almost impossible to track

The school-related challenges may reflect students’ angst about coming back to in-person instruction after as much as a year learning virtually at home, Elgersma said.

While it can be helpful for educators to find out early about the latest TikTok trend so that they can quickly respond to it—as Perez did—or proactively prevent it, it’s impossible to stay ahead of every challenge.

“They go in and out so quickly that I don’t even know about most of them,” Perez said. “It is kind of whack-a-mole-ish for lack of a better word because you’re like, ‘OK, I just dealt with that one, and now we have this one on our hands.’”

TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company Byte Dance, is not inventing these challenges. Instead, users dream them up and come up with hashtags for them. Some challenges go viral while others don’t catch fire, Elgersma said.

Sometimes, a particular challenge will seem to have died out, only to resurface weeks or months later. And there are times when a TikTok challenge may wreak havoc in one or two places and make the nightly news, making it appear the challenge has gone viral when it hasn’t, she added.

Talk to students about challenges but don’t judge them

Trying to guess where the next “Devious Licks” is coming from is a fool’s errand, but schools can still take steps to prevent kids from jumping on the latest challenge bandwagon.

Schools can make talking about TikTok challenges—and the peer pressure that perpetuates them—a part of digital citizenship education, Elgersma said.

Teachers and principals should steer clear of lecturing students. Instead, they should try an inquiry-based approach, using their own curiosity to spark an examination of why these challenges seem to have so much appeal, she said.

Educators should “resist the urge to dismiss and diminish it as stupid because that causes [students to think], ‘you don’t get us, you old fart,’” Elgersma said. Instead, “trust that they know how stupid these things are.”

Then, pick a challenge or two and really “break it down, get behind the curtain of it,” Elgersma suggested. Ask questions like: Why do you think these things are popular, even though they can be harmful? How do you find out about these things? Have you participated in these? Why or why not?

“Take all the judgment out of it,” she recommended.

Fleischman asks his students to think past the entertainment value of the TikTok video to what the ramifications might be afterward.

“Somebody’s got 10, 15 seconds of internet fame or however long that video was, but what they don’t see is what could have followed after it,” he said. He asks his students: “‘What happened to that kid at school? What happened to that student legally, who walked up and slapped their teacher? You guys just think it’s funny and cool, and you don’t see what happens down the road.’”

Then-principal Anuradha Ebbe was determined to put the kibosh on “Devious Licks” as soon as she saw signs that it could become a problem in her school. She did that, in part, by adding staff to supervise the hallways but also by alerting parents to the challenge.

“We partnered very extensively with families,” sending home communication in multiple languages, said Ebbe who served as principal of Cherokee Heights Middle School in 2021-22 and is now deputy associate superintendent of middle schools in Wisconsin’s Madison Metropolitan School District.

The tenor of the parent letters was “just very factual,” Ebbe said, and included suggestions for talking to their children about reporting what they see other students doing, and not giving in to peer pressure.

Communicating with parents is a smart idea, but choosing words carefully matters here too, Elgersma said.

“An alarmist tone is not going to work,” she said. “You don’t want the whole school community up in arms and super upset about kids eating hot chips [when] their own kid may not be doing it.”

Instead, administrators should just give a heads up that this is something that’s happening at school. Suggest they talk to their children about it, starting with asking their child if their friends are doing this, which is usually a smarter way to start out than asking if they themselves are doing it.

Some schools see classroom cellphone prohibitions as a TikTok challenge prevention tool

As for Perez, the wave of TikTok challenges seems to have died down at her school for now. She attributes that to an extensive social-emotional learning program, students becoming more accustomed to being back in the school building, and a new prohibition on cellphones in classrooms.

That cellphone prohibition wasn’t about the challenges per se, Perez said, though it’s now harder for students to text each other during class and make a plan to trash the bathroom.

Banning cellphones can be complicated, and many experts recommend schools allow the devices in class at least to some extent, so that students can learn to use them appropriately.

But it’s worth talking about challenges with students, even if a school prohibits phones, Elgersma said.

Cellphone bans “may stop kids from filming themselves doing it at school, but it’s not going to stop them from doing the challenge,” she said. “Since we are all invested in kids’ well-being and we know they’re going to use their phones when they get home, I think teaching them is the best way forward.”

Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2022 edition of Education Week as TikTok Challenges Are a Nightmare For Schools. How Should Educators Respond?

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