A photo in an Edutopia.org article showing a teacher using TikTok to teach students grammar basics. The article points out the teacher’s 900,000 followers she amassed on TikTok, but is light on data about whether or not the TikTok lessons have improved students’ learning. | Courtesy of Claudine Sanders James

Last week, we reported that “devious licks,” the latest TikTok trend sweeping the country, had made its way to Oak Park and River Forest High School. Basically, the viral video trend encourages TikTok users to show themselves destroying school property.

“In the last two weeks,” F. Amanda Tugade reported, “OPRF students have ‘ripped off’ more than 100 soap dispensers from the walls of the high school’s restrooms. …”

A recent article published in Curbed dismissed the predictable adult reactions to this trend as mere “grown-up hysteria”

“To read through the media and institutional responses to the trend is to encounter an adult population that willfully misunderstands, and forgets, what it’s like to be a teen, and what you often end up doing when you’re told not to do something,” writes Brock Colyar.

But this hot take is ridiculous because “devious licks” isn’t just another case of teenagers doing teenager things.

Articles like these only help out companies like Facebook and ByteDance (the owner of TikTok), which are hell-bent on disguising the fact that their platforms are inherently addictive and their business model is centered on ensuring that users, especially young consumers, are strung out.

In 2017, Sean Parker, the co-founder of Napster and Facebook’s first president, was pretty frank about Facebook’s design.

“The thought process was all about, ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible? … And that means we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever, and that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you more likes and comments. It’s a social validation feedback loop. … You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

Social media expert Sinan Aral outlined more precisely how the brain works on social media in his 2020 book The Hype Machine.

“The dopamine system makes us crave rewards by stimulating feelings of joy, euphoria, and ecstasy,” Aral writes. “When psychologists James Olds and Peter Milner gave rats the ability to stimulate their own reward system by pushing a lever, they found the rats would drop everything, stop eating and sleeping, and push that little lever again and again until they died from exhaustion.”

Julie Albright, a USC professor and author of Left to Their Own Devices: How Digital Natives are Reshaping the American Dream, compares social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook to slot machines.

“In psychological terms [it’s] called random reinforcement,” she told Forbes. “It means sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. And that’s how these platforms are designed. … They’re exactly like a slot machine.

“Well, the one thing we know is slot machines are addictive. We know there’s a gambling addiction, right? But we don’t often talk about how our devices and these platforms and these apps do have these same addictive qualities baked into them.”

Teenagers already thrive on dopamine rushes. The Curbed writer is right. Kids have always been kids. But this time really is different. Kids nowadays are literally having to experience the frustrating and nerve-wracking complexities of adolescence in a mediated reality premised on exploiting and mining for profit their most debased impulses.

“Our brains are changing based on this interaction with digital technologies and one of these is time compression,” Albright said. “Our attention spans are lowering.”

The anecdotes of college students she works with are chilling. When an acquaintance of Albright’s asked his students about their five-year plans after graduation, “the students looked at him like he was insane. Five year plan? What are you talking about, that’s like an eon! And they couldn’t even conceptualize a five year plan.”

Albright recalled another student who, “after listening to a presentation by a 62-year-old senior vice president at Huawei, put up her hand and asked, without irony or humor, how she could start at his level,” Forbes reports. “Predictably, that did not go over well.”

Short, entertaining, novel and capable of an immediate response from millions of other people anywhere in the world — the TikTok video is the latest perfect crystallization of our current digital moment.

And “devious licks” is this moment’s logical conclusion. When you’re addicted, you’re always needing to up the ante. What’s even crazier? What’s even wilder? What’s even more devilishly entertaining? And for the lucky few who get to monetize their content, how can I turn the reaction my video gets into money? And more money? And more money?

But addiction, alas, eventually makes you sick.

In June, the New York Times reported on the recent wave of TikTok influencers (or creators of popular content) who found fame on the platform last year but have already burned out.

From the Times report: “This app used to be so fun,” a TikTok creator known as Sha Crow said in a video from February, “and now your favorite creator is depressed.”

The Times quotes the venture firm SignalFire, which claims that more than 50 million people consider themselves influencers — “the fastest-growing small-business segment” in the country thanks partly due to the migration online that was driven by the pandemic.

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported that researchers inside of Instagram (which is owned by Facebook Inc.) were forcing company executives to face some hard truths.

“‘Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” the researchers said in a March 2020 slide presentation posted to Facebook’s internal message board, reviewed by the Wall Street Journal. “‘Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.’”

Despite knowing that their technologies are inherently addictive, depressing and driven mainly by entertainment — companies like Facebook and ByteDance routinely downplay the risks associated with their products and even have the gall to sell them as educational.

Google “TikTok educational” and it quickly becomes apparent that the company is making a PR push to re-brand its drug as beneficial for kids. You’ll find articles uncritically pushing the company’s selling points.

“From 60-second micro lessons to brain breaks, teachers are finding creative ways to meet students where they are. Increasingly, that’s on TikTok,” according to a glowing article on Edutopia.org.

The article shows an older woman teaching students “the basics of grammar” on TikTok to “more than 900,000 of her followers.” I know of another, much more effective tool that has taught generations of students how to master grammar absent the distractions. It’s called Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.

This is whole charade is ridiculous and the kids, digital natives who have an organic, intuitive feel for these technologies in a way that adults never will and in a way that doesn’t even need to be taught, know it’s ridiculous. Which is precisely why that photo looks like it was pulled straight from an Onion article. Here is my caption for it: “Students, as you post your ‘devious licks,’ please caption them in complete sentences.”

The patent absurdity of this push to brand TikTok as educational is revealed by one of the platform’s creators, Alex Zhu, the co-founder and co-CEO of Musical.ly, which was acquired by ByteDance in 2017 and merged into TikTok.

In a 2016 interview with venture capitalist and podcaster Josh Elman, Zhu said he intended to start a company “in the education space.” His vision was to “make educational content mobile-first and bite-sized. This turned out to be a ‘complete failure.’”

Zhu derived a major lesson from his failure and his decision to make Musical.ly instead.

“If you want to build a new user-generated content platform or social network, then the content has to be extremely light. The content creation and consumption need to happen within seconds, not minutes.

“Education is a little bit against human nature. If you look at how people use their phone, the majority of people are using their phone to communicate and entertain (playing games, using social media, or messaging). It’s pretty hard for a new startup to try to change human nature. It’s better to follow human nature than to fight against it.”

There’s a simple remedy for this corporate mendacity and the consequent addiction and vandalism it encourages. Remove the smart phones and the social media platforms from schools altogether.

It’s obviously time to detox.

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com

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