Teens and young adults may never be on the same page as their elders when it comes to pop culture. Whether it’s movies, books, TV or music — even within a single genre, parents tend not to like whatever the younger generation is into — there’s an almost inevitable clash of styles.

In technology, too, it seems the generations are, well, generations apart. When “adults” were still carrying around flip phones, teens all wanted smartphones with bigger, better screens. Now that older adults have joined the acolytes of the iPhone and other bigger, better smartphones, the hot new trend for younger adults is … flip phones.

As for social media, it’s seemed a never-ending race to the next big thing. By the time parents discovered MySpace, kids were onto Facebook. As parents gravitated toward Facebook, kids moved to Twitter, then to Snapchat or Instagram or Reddit. As those became mainstream (i.e., parents and other older adults started using them), up cropped TikTok.

Actually, there are hundreds of social media apps vying to become the next Facebook, even as Facebook is trying to become something new to regain its hold on the market. Each one either copies another or tries to offer a twist that will attract the desired demographic — a 144-character message limit; messages that disappear after a few seconds; filters that can make you look better (or, at least, different) than reality dictates. All have had their moment, then lost their luster.

TikTok, a newer favorite, features editing tools to make engaging (users hope) short videos. Some feature coordinated dancing; others just show off. And a disturbingly growing number feature users participating in “challenges” that are anything but benign. Unlike the Harlem Shake and Ice Bucket Challenge of a few years ago, primarily on YouTube, TikTok’s tests have a decidedly negative bent.

These challenges are at the heart of the app, or rather, some version of them is. It’s all about participating and being part of the collective fun. Here’s how the blog Backlight described their origins:

“Most TikTok challenges start with a popular song or sound. One video with that sound goes viral, and soon, other users start putting their own spin on it. And when more and more people start to do their own versions, it quickly becomes a trend.”

That sounds pretty organic and innocent, but somewhere along the way, it turned nasty. Now, sites are featuring a calendar of monthly challenges as schools have returned to in-person classes, and they seem to be growing more aggressive.

In September, the app was in the news as users took part in a challenge dubbed “devious licks,” for reasons we, being older adults, can’t fathom. It “challenged” students to steal something from school, capturing the theft for posterity (and, perhaps, the courts). Many school restrooms were vandalized, with soap and paper towel dispensers ripped off walls or toilet paper strewn about. Fun!

It gets worse. This month’s proposed lark is called “smack a staff member.” By January, the list calls for “jab a breast” and in February, “mess up school signs.” If assault, theft and vandalism don’t sound like great participatory games, you must be getting old.

So, why do users actually do these things? Is being part of the crowd — even if not that many people recognize you — that big of a draw? Or is the app (by which we mean those directing people to do this stuff through it, though TikTok obviously is benefiting from the popularity) simply touching a nerve, hitting on behaviors some teens and young adults want to engage in?

There may be some of the latter. We’ve seen in politics and other arenas in recent years that a pretty sizable chunk of humanity is angry and frustrated with the direction of things, and ready to make some bad choices just to be heard.

But all of these social media platforms use very intricate algorithms that feed on misbehavior and encourage the worst in us. As the leaked information from Facebook has indicated, when it comes down to doing what’s right or doing what’s profitable, top Facebook executives are billionaires for a reason. And other apps, we would guess, often make the same choices.

More oversight of such companies is warranted. With Congress calling social media CEOs to testify, that may happen. And if the authorities can determine who’s putting together these challenge lists that urge students to assault others and damage property, perhaps there would be legal consequences.

In the meantime, it certainly would be nice to see that energy redirected. Where are the lists of safe and beneficial tasks that might similarly capture the interest of those determined to go viral, such as the Ice Bucket Challenge, which raised $115 million in 2014 to fight ALS? Some TikTok users have sought to counter the “devious licks” trend with “angelic yields,” which, according to a recent PBS report, encourages students to replace stolen items or engage in other kind acts to improve their schools. That’s a step in the right direction.

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