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Why students engage in violent social media trends and what can be done about them

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

Social media trends used to be relatively harmless in nature.

From the popular "Dry-Scoop" challenge, when people consumed pre-workout powder without mixing it with water, all the way back to the ice bucket challenge, when it was popular to pour a bucket of cold water over your head to raise awareness for ALS. These challenges, though silly at times, weren't leading to arrests or school closures.

Recently, a rise in destructive and sometimes violent student behaviors, encouraged by social media trends on platforms such as TikTok, are occurring in many Utah school districts, leaving school administrators searching for solutions.

The problem

Earlier this month, a student was taken into custody after a threat was made at a junior high school in the Salt Lake area and earlier that week, a drawing of a gun, along with the date "12/13/21" in a bathroom stall at a school in the Box Elder School District, led the district to hold many classes online as police investigated the threat.

"What's really difficult is you don't know if (the challenges) are serious or not serious," said Rhett Larsen, student and school safety specialist with the Utah State Board of Education. "These challenges really do pose some real concerns both to the safety of the students themselves but also to those that are around them."

Larsen emphasized that while Utah schools are, by and large, very safe, it's necessary to take destructive and violent social media trends seriously for the sake of students and faculty.

"We really need to understand what we need to do to assess what we have in place to really educate our kids and also ensure that they know that these threats are serious and the consequences are high," Larsen said.

When threats are made, he said, schools have multidisciplinary teams and threat assessment processes they follow to determine whether threats are serious.

"I think it's always good to make sure parents and the community understand that schools do have protocols in place to look at, to identify and to determine if threats are serious or not serious," he said.

Avery Holton, associate chairman of the department of communication at the University of Utah, says the issue of students joining in on social media trends is nuanced and doesn't have a one-size-fits-all solution, especially for generations of students who were "born into technology."

"This connectedness to technology and digital media and social media is a part of their lives in a way that somebody like me, who's 40, can't fully understand," Holton said.

"In those (social media) spaces, they've learned that there are certain positive consequences — somebody likes a post, it reaches a certain number of shares, a particular influencer catches it and shares it — those things feel good and they send these little bursts of happiness through our bodies," Holton added.

"They've also learned that there can be real sadness there — there can be bullying and shaming or accidentally saying something that they don't mean."

Although some of these trends are destructive and even violent, Holton said students may be tempted to engage in them for reasoning as simple as fitting in or feeling included.

"With the current trends for schools and school violence, we're seeing that herd mentality that's so common across the span of our lives, but more so in school, people following one another thinking something's popular or funny — but what we're not seeing a lot of right now are the consequences of that," he said.

After the incidents of threats during the month of December, officials warned that students caught making violent threats can be prosecuted.

"When we start to see people like us doing something, even if we don't necessarily believe in it, sometimes it's easy to be captivated by that," Holton said.

Potential solutions

Holton said that there are actions that can be taken to help combat the issue, including schools taking preventative measures.

"Actually embedding themselves on social media so they see these trends either as or before they're happening, and developing policies to meet them, can let students in the cases of violence or calls like this know that there will be punitive action taken," he said.

Additionally, schools can take palliative measures by relaying consequences to students.

"Making sure that schools are talking to students about what can happen and what the consequences can be — not only for the student but for students around them, for the teachers and staffs and administrators of these schools and school districts and a bigger problem across the country — what it can do to add to what is already a precarious society right now," Holton said.

In the midst of the recent threats, Granger High School Principal David Dunn urged parents to monitor their students' social media use, saying, "Please check your student's smartphone device for any of the following social media platforms: Snapchat, Instagram or TikTok."

Similarly, an email to parents of students at Matheson Junior High stressed the need for parents to be aware of what their kids are doing on social media, and maybe even take them off the different platforms altogether, if necessary.

In addition to parents policing their students' social media usage, Holton said incorporating social media literacy classes into school curriculum or spaces within schools where social media literacy is discussed would be beneficial.

"Offering a class time or space where students can come in and engage in critical thought and conversation that deals with things like real-life consequences and empathy for one another and the implications, short- and long-term, of their actions and the things they post on social media is absolutely critical," Holton said.

"We do have some great resources right now — continually assessing what we have in place for both threat assessment and digital threat assessment (and) ensuring what we do have is enough, and partnering with other states and seeing what's working and what's not and sharing these best practices so we can try to stay ahead of the curve, or at least stay with it and see what we need to do to limit some of these things that we're seeing," Larsen added.

"It takes all of us."