Last week, three students at Woodbury Middle School in Salem, N.H., decided to try their hand at the latest social media craze creating headaches for educators around the country: The so-called “outlet challenge” popularized on TikTok, a video platform.
The gist: Users are encouraged to take a short video of themselves placing a phone charger near an electrical outlet, then dropping a penny between the outlet and the charger prongs. The result is a share-worthy spark.
The problem, of course, is that this can also damage the outlets, cause children to electrocute themselves, or start a fire.
Woodbury Middle, about 40 minutes from Boston, was fortunate. The students succeeded only in short-circuiting the outlet. All three were suspended for five days. The district gave them and their parents the option of shortening that, if they were willing to speak with an official at the local fire department about the potential dangers of the challenge. The students agreed to that deal, Michael Delahanty, the district superintendent said.
The school sent home a notice to parents, warning them about the challenge. After all, Delahanty said, it could cause far more damage in a home, where walls are often made with dry wall, not cinderblock.
“There is information online of this happening in schools and homes across the country,” wrote Brad St. Laurent, the school’s principal. “Please take the time to discuss online safety and viral trends with your children.”
Other schools have also been hit by the challenge.
Students participating in the challenge damaged outlets in three different classrooms at Dalhart High School in Texas, Sandra Richman, an assistant principal, wrote in a Facebook forum read by school leaders. The local fire department was called out to Plymouth North High School in Plymouth, Mass., to check out two burned outlets, CNN reported. And at Whitman-Hanson Regional High School in Whitman, Mass., two students were charged with malicious destruction of property after they damaged eight school outlets, according to the Associated Press.
PHOTOS from #Hanson Police. They charged two boys, 15 & 16, for #TikTok #OutletChallenge at #WhitmanHansonHighSchool. Police say the kids ended up scorching several outlets at the school last week. #NBC10Boston #NECN pic.twitter.com/3AbqwqzlV8
— Susan Tran (@susantran) January 28, 2020
The widespread nature of the incidents isn’t a big surprise. As of March last year, TikTok was the most downloaded app in Apple’s app store for five consecutive quarters, CNN reported. It has over one billion downloads worldwide. It’s so popular with teenagers that some schools are beginning to use it as a teaching tool. While many of the challenges on the site involve copying dances—sometimes with provocative moves—it’s also inspired users to create videos of themselves doing all sorts of ill-advised things, including eating cereal out of a friend’s mouth.
Delahanty’s advice to educators around the country on the outlet challenge: Be proactive.
“This is not isolated to us,” he said. “It would be wise to inform parents now before something happens.” He suggests having teachers take some time to talk to kids about the challenge—and any other potentially dangerous ideas sweeping social media—and let them know what could happen or might happen if they go awry.
Educators should frame that talk as a give-and-take chat, not a scolding, he added.
“When you invite students to participate in a conversation, rather than a stern lecture, you make them the decision makers,” he said.
Delahanty wishes that he had been aware of the trend, so he could have alerted families sooner.
“These young adolescents generally are not thoroughly thoughtful about what they will do,” he said. They think they “are omnipotent and will live forever. That’s why the message was distributed to the parents.”
And he said that educators and parents would be smart to stay on top of these ill-advised social media trends, given that nearly every student has a phone in their pocket.
“We have to be more diligent and vigilant than we were before,” he said. “It’s a new world.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.