In recent years, short-form video has become the go-to social media format for younger users. Instagram? Out. TikTok? Very much in. But, the mega-popular app has faced its fair share of controversy over concerns about data privacy, damaging algorithms and inappropriate content that has the potential to harm children. In response, TikTok has introduced new screen time limits for younger users. While this sounds good in theory, this new feature is easy enough for determined kids to skirt. Here’s what parents need to know.
A history of controversy
TikTok has had more than a bit of bad press lately: The app is banned from many government devices in the US and Canada, and even some universities are blocking it on their networks. Increasingly, there is fear that the Chinese-owned app could be harvesting sensitive data. And, the concerns about TikTok are not new. Back in February 2019, the app was fined by the US Federal Trade Commission for illegally collecting data from children under the age of 13. There have also been concerns about inappropriate content, like videos promoting self-harm or depicting sexual content. Facing mounting pressure, and questions about the welfare of children, TikTok has implemented new measures to protect younger users, including new screen time limits.
The limitations of TikTok screen time limits
While the new screen time limits seem like a step in the right direction, the feature is surprisingly easy to circumvent. In theory, users under 18 will be limited to 60 minutes on the app each day, but according to Vox, the new time limits are more like suggestions. There are ways that users can continue scrolling after those 60 minutes have lapsed.
The screen time limit is applied by default for users under 18. For users under 13, parents will need to enter a code every 30 minutes for them to continue scrolling. Users 13–18, however, just need to enter their own code to continue. And if teens spend more than 100 minutes scrolling per day, they are forced to set their own limit, which they can also bypass with their own code. Users will also get a weekly recap of their time spent in-app, and TikTok apparently believes these changes will be enough to encourage teens to become more mindful of their tech usage.
Parents who link their accounts to their children’s accounts will have some additional controls as well. They can see how much time teens are spending on TikTok and how many times they open the app. They can set custom times to mute notifications and set custom time limits on specific days. Crucially, these controls require parents to create their own TikTok accounts. No account, no controls. For the many, many teens whose parents aren’t on the app, they’re left to self-manage their screen time. And, younger users can easily lie about their age when setting up their accounts, and circumvent the controls entirely.
Experts have widely panned the new features, and the Tech Oversight Project has called them “a fake ploy to make parents feel safe without actually making their product safe.” They argue that, by design, Big Tech companies like TikTok, YouTube and Instagram do not care about child and teen wellbeing, instead prioritizing their performance metrics.
What can parents do?
If you want to help your kids develop healthy social media habits, stay curious, talk with them regularly and ask them to show you how they’re using their platforms. Unfortunately, the limits and controls that companies build into their products are often wholly inadequate on their own to prevent kids from mindlessly scrolling. TikTok is especially compelling for… well most users, not just teens. This platform’s algorithm is extremely powerful, and it’s easy to find yourself down niche rabbit holes and lose hours of your day to these bite-size, snappy videos. Parents are well advised to keep younger children off the platform if possible—and stay vigilant with older children.
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