Our schools and local authorities are being tasked with deciphering and decoding social media posts like never before. As parents, we need to be code breakers, too. 

TikTok users – many of whom are teens and young adults - try to become “famous” by seeking likes and views on their seconds-long video posts. Posts that go “viral” may be copied by millions of people. 

You may have have heard about the TikTok challenges and other challenges posted on social media over the years. Many seem pretty harmless, like the ones that feature dancing, or the ice bucket challenge that raised awareness and funds for charity. The cinnamon challenge, where participants eat a full tablespoon of ground cinnamon, ended with the subject documenting themselves choking and coughing amidst a plume of cinnamon. Participants in the ice cream challenge filmed themselves at grocery stores opening containers of ice cream, licking it and putting it back. In the blackout challenge, participants starve their brains of oxygen by choking themselves while capturing it on video Another challenge called Devious Licks came on the TikTok scene in September. Students recorded themselves vandalizing or stealing school-owned property such as paper towel holders, toilets and bathroom mirrors. 

Why would anyone do this? The answer is that if it gets likes or views, then the person posting it is buoyed by status and social recognition – their chance at “15 minutes of fame.” 

Last week, we became aware of a nationwide school shooting challenge on TikTok. In our area, the Mahtomedi and Centennial School Districts e-mailed parents, outlining actions they have in place to ensure students safety. The Minnesota Department of Public Safety reported 29 threats to schools last Friday. None of them were deemed credible, and so far we are not aware of any threats to schools in our circulation area.

If all the harmful challenges on social media didn’t get the attention of kids, parents, school administrators and the community before, the school shooter challenge has. 

Action needs to be taken against companies like TikTok who evidently have little to no public safety measures in place and lack corporate ethics or integrity. These social media platforms are the “wild west” on the internet, and there has been little recourse against them. Why should schools and law enforcement spend time and resources mobilizing a response to a situation that a company should have shut down before it ever started? 

Parents need to be aware of what their kids are doing on social media. With the proliferation of smart phones, kids have access to the internet and social media apps like TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram from a very young age. Pre-teens and teens have always done stupid things, and now they can do them in front of an audience of thousands on social media. We need to continually talk to kids about internet safety and appropriate use of social media. They also need to know it’s OK to tattle about threatening situations at school or online, whether it’s a concern for a threat of violence, a friend’s mental health, or a bullying situation that could result in irreparable harm.

We have ratings and warnings about almost everything. Yet there are very few regulations for social media, and our kids are becoming addicted. These companies are using powerful techniques and algorithms to send a steady stream of content geared to our kids that plays into their emotions and weaknesses. Their only motive is generating money from advertisers — they simply don’t care about the harm they are causing. Kids are especially vulnerable, but people of all ages are also being manipulated.

As we are (hopefully) coming out of this pandemic, many people are on edge. Anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues are rising and being exacerbated by misinformation on social media. We don’t have enough resources for people to get help they need. What will it take before we as a country stand up to these corporate social media giants? I hope the shock of the school shooting challenge turns to action. Enough is enough. 

As we celebrate Christmas this week, the challenge I have for my family and for yours is to put down the smartphones and enjoy the spirit of the season, family traditions and time spent with loved ones.

 

Carter Johnson is publisher of Press Publications.

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