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TikTok to limit the time teens can be on the app. Will safeguards help protect them?

TikTok says every account held by a user under the age of 18 will automatically be set to a 60-minute daily screen time limit in the coming weeks.
Drew Angerer
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TikTok says every account held by a user under the age of 18 will automatically be set to a 60-minute daily screen time limit in the coming weeks.

Updated March 6, 2023 at 12:42 PM ET

Jelena Kecmanovic is a psychologist who works with teenagers struggling with their mental health. "Almost every one of our sessions starts with what happened on TikTok or Instagram," she says.

Kecmanovic also heads a practice group of other mental health professionals who work with adolescents. So when TikTok announced last week that it would roll out new usage limits for users under 18 in the United States, she and her colleagues looked closely at the new safeguards.

Those safeguards include default settings for users under 13 that require parental permission to continue using the app after 60 minutes on TikTok in one day. Users between the ages of 13 and 17 will be asked to enter their own passcode to continue using TikTok after 60 minutes of daily use. Users under 18 will be asked to set their own usage limits if they opt out of the default setting.

When Kecmanovic dug into the details of TikTok's new policies, she was disappointed. "It's not enough," she told NPR's A Martinez.

She compared teens on TikTok to adults who gamble on slot machines: "Maybe you're winning. You're on a good streak and it's middle of the night and your defenses are down. And then something shows up in front of the slot machine saying, 'you've been on too long, it's middle of the night. Maybe you should reconsider.' How many people would stop?"

Kecmanovic says teens' excessive use of TikTok isn't necessarily a reflection of their poor impulse control.

"I really don't think this is that much about teens not having self-control. I think it's about the design of social media that's basically like slot machines."

TikTok's parent company ByteDance already has much stricter usage limits for kids who use its apps in China because of the Chinese government's efforts to regulate teenagers' use of technology. In 2021 ByteDance moved to cut off access to Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, for users under age 14 after 40 minutes of daily use. Kids are also blocked from accessing the app every night between 10pm and 6am.

Kecmanovic told NPR's A Martinez that ByteDance's policies for adolescent users in China are much closer to the type of policies she and her colleagues recommend to families who are struggling with the negative effects of kids' social media use.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Some of the excerpts include some quotes from the interview that were not aired in the broadcast version.


Interview excerpts

On how the teenagers she works with perceive their own use of apps like TikTok

I would say majority of our teens are aware that this is not helping. And yet they say 'I can't help it. There's FOMO, I don't like it. I know it puts me in a worse mood. I feel really yucky in the morning, especially if I'm doing it until middle of the night and it's replacing my sleep or during the day. It's replacing any other activities that might be actually purposeful and meaningful and joyful. I feel terrible. And yet, what am I missing? Everybody else is using it. I have to be on it.' So they have this compulsion on one hand, and also the sense that if I'm not doing it, I'll really be left out. But on the other hand, there is a sense this is not helping me.

On how kids can spend a healthy amount of time on social media

In any given sitting, not more than 15 minutes. We know that going down these very unhelpful and hurtful rabbit holes is particularly pernicious. So being on any given social media for past 15 minutes, you get into worse and worse and worse psychological state. And we know that it's much more helpful, actually, to be on it twice a day for 15 minutes than being on it in one sitting for half an hour.

For all social media, the longer you stay on it, some research has shown you tend to get more extreme content. And you end up in this space where you really feel compulsive.

On the added burden TikTok's new features could place on parents

We work with kids who have parents that are very involved and have more time than a lot of other parents. And even they say 'I just can't deal with this. It's too much, I trust that I raised my kids well enough that they will figure out what's appropriate.' But we don't have option because the data show that this is really, really, really deleterious for kids health.

What parents really can do is to create family spaces and times when everybody's off. We call it a family media plan. Because we are also the biggest models for kids and we use our phones too much. We're on screens too much, we use social media too much. We are distracted all the time. So creating really important conversations around the dinner table and with family, that everybody at 10:00 pm, let's say, logs off. No usage of social media privately in your room or bathroom. When we go on a hike trip, nobody nobody's on it. At the dinner table, all of us are off it. I think that's where there's a space for parents to start modeling these kinds of more helpful behaviors and relating to technology in a different way.

On what else apps like TikTok should be doing to reduce the harm their product does to teen users in the United States

The idea that [the app] shuts off during certain periods [for teen users], I think that absolutely should be the case. Access to social media in the bedroom of teens or tweens until the wee hours of the morning is incredibly, incredibly harmful.

We have some really interesting studies that show that even if you turn off notifications, just a phone laying in front of you if you have two people eating dinner together, their level of connection as they reported later is going to suffer. I mean, just having that phone right there, you're being aware of it. So I would love to see contexts, times of day, times of night in which it would automatically shut off.

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