Are Kids Stealing Because TikTok Made It Seem Cool, or Is the 'Devious Licks' Freakout Yet Another Adult-Led Moral Panic?

TikTok's "devious licks" trend has earned the company and its teen users plenty of scorn. But what's actually going on?


Ever left a garage door open and noticed that your fridge has been picked clean of beer? Teens have been gutsy, determined thieves since long before TikTok came on the scene. But recently adults have been freaking out about a new TikTok trend called "devious licks" (licks meaning stolen goods) in which teens victoriously post about the cool stuff they lifted, typically from schools.

Unsurprisingly, this trend, which centered around pilfering things like soap and toilet paper dispensers (in a few cases, kids claimed to have pried urinals from the walls) from high school bathrooms, did not go over well with adults, who were whipped into quite the frenzy. "Viral TikTok trend, or criminal act?" asked one Inside Sources report. Teachers and school administrators circulated a list of other pranks kids nationwide were allegedly planning to pull over the course of the year, including one month devoted to smacking teachers' butts, alleging it had come from the kids themselves instead of originating with a single, hysterical school resource officer in Idaho named Deputy Dave Gomez who never bothered to verify the list's origins, as Reply All reported. (Anyone who has ever met a teen knows they're not exactly amazing at planning months in advance, or coordinating across friend groups and high schools, let alone state lines, to do something as blatant as hitting a teacher.) Local and national media outlets drummed up outrage and concern about the social media trend, often credulously recycling the same reports without bothering to consider that teens make stuff up. And Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D–Conn.) asked TikTok representatives to testify before Congress, taking the company to task for its role in the licks—par for the course given how eager Congress has been of late to castigate social media companies for teen usage.

"You have a responsibility to delete videos, ban users, and restrict hashtags that glorify property damage and threats to school safety to prevent this destructive behavior from spreading," Blumenthal wrote in a letter to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew.

But the company did take the hashtag down quite quickly, shutting down access to the roughly 94,000 #deviouslicks or related #diabolicallicks videos. And, it is worth noting (as techdirt rightly did), that for every "devious lick" there is an equal and opposite "angelic yield"—another TikTok trend that emerged soon after, which depicts teens restoring or replacing stolen goods to their original spots. Though some school bathrooms were wrongly vandalized, and some goods damaged, the degree to which the trend of youth in revolt threatened schools en masse was overstated by breathless, hysterical news reports, and adults who assumed that each TikTok video made was in fact a kid telling the truth about what they had stolen as opposed to something staged for clout. As Brock Colyar reported at Curbed:

"For all the real-life vandalism, what is also very real is that some of these teen punks might be punking us all too. One student, Gavino, a 17-year-old high schooler in Minnesota, uploaded a video showing a classroom sink gushing water, describing it as a 'Devious Lick' gone wrong. When I contacted him over Snapchat, however, he told me he wasn't actually trying to poach the faucet. It was broken, so he made a video about it. When I reached out to another student, a 14-year-old, who posted a TikTok stuffing Chromebooks into his backpack, he told me he didn't even take them out of the building."

Of course, "stealing from school has been a thing since the beginning of time…but what is new is the clout, I guess, that can be gained from it," says YouTuber Jarvis Johnson. Moral panics surrounding teen behavior have always existed—rainbow parties, pharm parties, glue-sniffing fears, vodka-soaked tampons, the Tide pod challenge, jelly sex bracelets, snorting bath salts—but what is new is the fact that scorn is so aggressively fixed on companies like TikTok, which handled this about as well as they could've reasonably been expected to. What techlashers claim they want is proper, timely handling of harmful social media content, and that is exactly what TikTok did.

It's easy to fixate on the bad behavior of teens and tech companies while excusing the bad behavior of teachers, journalists, and sitting U.S. senators. Perhaps the most devious thing of all is the degree to which adults, failing to exercise even a modicum of skepticism, contribute to moral panics over and over again, rarely wising up.