Originally posted on health.
- Last week, TikTok announced a new, 60-minute screen limit timer for teens.
- This will not stop teens from using the app for the day; users over the age of 13 can input their passcode to continue scrolling. Children under the age of 13 will require a parent to input a passcode.
- Experts agree that while time limits are helpful for healthy social media use, logistical loopholes and the habits of those around them could prevent teens from adhering to healthy online practices.
The wildly popular social media app, TikTok, will be rolling out a new feature that places a 60-minute screen limit timer for all users under the age of 18, the company announced on Wednesday.
Teens ages 13 to 18 will see a pop-up notifying them that they’ve been using the app for an hour, though users can put in their passcode to override the limit if they want to continue using the app, TikTok said in a press release.1 The system is similar for those under the age of 13, though they’ll need a parent’s assistance to put in a password that unlocks an additional 30 minutes on the app.
Other new features will be added in addition to the screen time limits, such as a weekly recap of time in the app, and added parental controls that can mute notifications and provide additional information on app usage.
These changes should provide “an opportunity for parents and teens to collaborate on developing healthy online habits,” said Larry Magid, the president and CEO of a technology safety nonprofit called ConnectSafely, in the press release.
The changes are a step in the right direction for teens looking to build healthier habits online, though TikTok still presents some unique challenges, noted Lucía Magis-Weinberg, MD, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington.
“Especially for older adolescents, we want to set limits that allow them to still exert their autonomy and independence. So I think that’s why a nudge is a better approach than a strict limit. At the same time,” she told Health, “it is a big struggle to self-regulate in the face of such engaging technology.”
A Step Toward Healthy Social Media Habits
Limiting screen time is a great step toward healthy online habits. One study found that more screen time was associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety for teens ages 14 to 17.2 Another study found that participants who limited their social media usage to 10 minutes per app per day reported higher well-being than a control group.
But, as TikTok mentioned in its press release, there’s no specific number of daily minutes that’s recommended for kids. They landed on a 60-minute timer after working with researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital Digital Wellness Lab, the company said.
“Screen time is not the best measure of what young people are doing online,” Dr. Magis-Weinberg explained. “We want to focus on quality, but that is hard to implement. So I do welcome this as a first stage.”
Essentially, according to Dr. Magis-Weinberg, using social media well is a skill that many children and teens don’t have. Setting some limits and boundaries may help them build those skills in the healthiest way possible. A screen limit pop-up provides a moment to pause and think.
“Instead of being lost down a rabbit hole or losing awareness of what they’re doing, they have to take stock of, ‘Okay, let me take a breather. Is this what I want to be doing?’” Eileen Anderson, EdD, professor of bioethics and director of educational programs in bioethics and medical humanities at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, told Health.
This is especially important on TikTok, as the app is a huge draw for teens and children. Just over two-thirds of teens ages 13–17 said they’ve used TikTok in some capacity, and 16% say they’re using the app “almost constantly.”
“The developing brain is really sensitive to technology and media, in ways we don’t even understand yet,” Anderson said. “If children are being exposed to material that challenges them in some way, having some of these other developmental skills on board can help them navigate it successfully.”
Solving a Complicated Problem
Though experts agree screen time limits help teens navigate social media, it’s certainly not a perfect solution to the negative outcomes that apps like TikTok often cause.
There are currently no safe ways to verify social media users’ ages when they sign up for accounts online, Dr. Magis-Weinberg observed. So, technically, nothing is stopping kids and teens from inflating their ages and using that to work around implemented screen time controls.
Besides logistical pitfalls, there are some aspects of TikTok itself that make implementing healthy social media habits challenging.
“Their algorithms are particularly sophisticated,” Dr. Magis-Weinberg said. “That makes it harder to regulate behavior, because you’re getting tempered with all this content that you really like, and that is going to be particularly engaging to you.”
There’s also the visual nature of the platform. The promise of something new, plus the short-form video format seem to be particularly “addictive” for young people, Anderson explained. And because it’s so visual, apps such as TikTok or Instagram have a higher chance of pushing negative ideals of body image that can affect teens’ mental health, Dr. Magis-Weinberg added.
“What are they watching? And are they watching things that are age-inappropriate, that are going to have negative health implications, whether they’re watching it for 60 minutes or 120 minutes?” Anderson asked.
Finding a Balance Is Key
Amidst a variety of social media concerns, there are a few things parents can do to help their kids learn healthy online habits.
Dr. Magis-Weinberg noted that banning kids from social media apps—at least on a society-wide scale—is probably not the solution. The U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy made headlines when he said he believes kids under 13 are too young to join social media platforms.5 Dr. Magis-Weinberg doesn’t necessarily agree.
A less stringent plan would focus on the idea of social media use as a balancing act. Once a person deducts time to sleep, work, eat, engage in hobbies, and do other daily tasks, there’s probably not much time left to scroll online, Dr. Magis-Weinberg explained. But, if there is, that is a good time to engage in “intentional” or “meaningful” use, she added.
That’s probably a lesson that all TikTok users could work on, not just minors. Data from early summer 2022 found that, globally, TikTok users spent a daily average of 95 minutes on the app.
Moving beyond the scrutiny of teens’ social media use, Anderson explained it’s important that parents and adults play an active role in helping younger users learn to healthily manage social media apps.
“[Kids] watch very carefully what their parents do,” she said. “So the first thing that parents should do is take a good look at their own social media usage. Because we have parents who are on their phones all the time, yelling at kids to get off their phones. And that is not very effective.”
The key is to find time to balance social media with all of the activities that we need to keep ourselves healthy, Dr. Magis-Weinberg explained. And whatever we can do to avoid endlessly scrolling is a good thing.
“[It] causes people to take pause and question that [screen time] message,” Anderson said. “Even if there are kind of an infinite number of workarounds that kids find a way to do.”