Leading into Friday, school districts around the country notified parents of a reported “National Shoot Up Your School Day” TikTok trend, which had supposedly encouraged students to commit violence on Dec. 17. Federal and state law enforcement agencies asserted that the supposed threats are not credible, and TikTok said it could not find any evidence of such a trend, though school districts had been heightening their security measures and increasing police presence on campuses out of an abundance of caution. Some schools even opted to shut down for the day, and many parents reportedly kept their kids home.
Publicly available details about the trend are scarce. Dozens of local news outlets have reported on the social media phenomenon, though they have largely been unable to identify the original TikTok videos promoting the national day of violence or specific regional threats that resulted from the supposed trend. One possible exception is in Tooele County, Utah, where a screenshot of a threat circulated on Facebook, which read in part, “Im [sic] am so tired of everything on December 17 I will shoot up the school this is your only warning please don’t go!” The post specifically names a school with the initials “GHS,” which some parents in the area reportedly thought was a reference to the county’s Granger High School, though officials claim that it is more likely a school in California or Colorado. Utah officials also asserted that the trend was originally an attempt by students to get out of class that spiraled out of control. Otherwise, though, there seems to be very little evidence of the trend available online; videos still on TikTok by Friday about “National Shoot Up Your School Day” were virtually all either warnings to stay safe or criticisms of the trend. TikTok also announced that it “exhaustively searched for content that promotes violence at schools today, but have still found nothing.” The platform is, however, removing “alarmist warnings” about the trend that violate policies around misinformation.
While it’s understandable that administrators and parents would want to take extra precautions, particularly given the school shooting in Michigan last month that killed four students, the frenzy that’s been whipped up in the wake of this supposed TikTok trend is reminiscent of past social media panics that did not turn out to be as serious as people feared. Recently, administrators, law enforcement, and Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal got worked up over a TikTok trend known as the “Devious Licks Challenge” in September, which apparently encouraged adolescents to steal items like hand sanitizer and inflict property damage at their schools. Students in some cases filmed themselves destroying bathroom tiles or purloining urinal cakes, and TikTok quickly cracked down on the content and banned the #deviouslick hashtag. Teachers and administrators then became concerned that the Devious Licks Challenge was mutating into sometime more violent when a list of spinoff TikTok challenges appeared to be spreading on Facebook. One of the challenges was to slap a teacher. A student in Convington, Louisiana was arrested in October for assaulting a disabled teacher in connection with the challenge, though the challenge generally did not seem to be translating to real-world incidents in the same way Devious Licks had. The podcast Reply All ended up conducting an investigation into this slapping challenge and discovered that it was actually an ecosystem of parents, teachers, and school safety experts that were primarily spreading the list of challenges on social media, not teens. Indeed, concerned adults were amplifying the slapping challenge to order to warn in other without looking into whether students were actually gravitating to it.
You also might remember the “Momo Challenge” in 2019, which featured a ghastly bird woman on YouTube and other social media sites who was allegedly encouraging kids to commit self-harm. International news outlets initially began reporting on the challenge, with a 12-year-old girl’s suicide in Argentina gaining worldwide attention. (Local authorities, however, were unable to establish a connection between Momo and the incident.) Soon, social media influencers like Kim Kardashian were posting warnings about kids being targeted by Momo. The frenzy was likely fueled in part by the infamous 2014 stabbing in Waukesha, Wisconsin, in which two tween girls attempted to murder a classmate in order to gain favor with Slender Man, a fictional horror character that gained prominence through internet memes. (One of the assailants was later diagnosed with early onset schizophrenia.) Internet researchers, however, found that evidence of a Momo trend was mostly anecdotal and very likely a hoax. As with the school challenge, people warning about Momo were largely unable to produce actual posts or videos encouraging kids to hurt themselves or others.
Rumors about kids and teens participating in deadly fads have been fueling handwringing news coverage for decades, though social media seems to be putting these panics into over drive. Tracking the spread of certain trends on social media and judging whether they’re actually substantive is notoriously difficult—even researchers can have trouble doing this—so it makes sense that a parent or administrator might just err on the side of warning about a supposedly dangerous fad just to be safe. However, it seems that this tendency often has the consequence of giving more oxygen to what was initially a nonstarter.