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‘We Can Turn It Off.’ Why TikTok’s New Teen Time Limit May Not Do Much

5 minute read

TikTok is the most popular social media platform for teens—and by many accounts the time they spend on it is growing. Two-thirds of U.S. teenagers told a 2022 Pew survey that they are on the app, and 16% said they use it constantly. In 2021, the average time kids and teens spent on TikTok grew to 91 minutes a day, up from 82 the year before, according to a report by TechCrunch.

So Tuesday’s news that TikTok moved to limit minors to one hour per day sounds like a big deal. But teachers, who have reported concerningly high social media use among students and struggles to compete for their attention, say that while the new limits are a good idea, they might not have a big impact.

TikTok’s time limit

In the coming weeks, the Chinese-owned company announced it will automatically implement the shift by alerting users who are registered as under 18 once they’ve hit the one-hour mark of daily use. At that point, teens between 13-17 can enter a passcode to unlock more scrolling time. Children under 13 will need a parent or guardian to set up and enter a passcode for them to get 30 additional minutes on the app.

The time limit is fairly easy to override for older minors, but TikTok linked to research showing that “being more aware of how we spend our time can help us be more intentional about the decisions we make,” Cormac Keenan, TikTok head of trust and safety, wrote in a statement on Tuesday.

In the Pew survey, 55% of adolescents reported that they spend an appropriate amount of time on social media, but 34% feel that they’re online too much. Additionally, 54% of teens think it would be hard to give up social media.

Other prominent social media platforms, like Instagram and Twitter, don’t impose usage limits on minors’ accounts. Instagram and Twitter offer optional time limits for mobile users, either through the app or phone settings. The age requirement for opening an Instagram or Twitter account is 13 or older and Instagram joined Twitter last year with an age verification process. TikTok users must be 13 to get full access, but kids under 13 who sign up have limited viewing capabilities.

TikTok also offers a “Family Pairing” mode, which gives parents access to their children’s online activity. The app has other safety mechanisms for users under 16, including making such accounts private by default and not offering the direct message function.

Since its inception, the Chinese-owned app has faced scrutiny as a national security threat, and on Wednesday The House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to approve a bill that would give President Biden authority to ban TikTok in the U.S. The app is banned on government-owned devices in the E.U., and at the federal level in the U.S. Some states have imposed stricter bans, even blocking it from WiFi state-owned networks, including on public college campuses.

‘We can turn it off’

Sari Beth Rosenberg, a New York City public high school history teacher, knows that most of her students are active on TikTok, just like she is. When she talked to some of her students about TikTok’s new time limit, the teens didn’t seem fazed. “We can turn it off,” they told Rosenberg. Yet still, Rosenberg says that we need to give teenagers more credit. “Phones, in general, are distracting, but I think that to be honest, my students are more mindful of it as a distraction than a lot of the adults that I know,” she tells TIME.

In Rosenberg’s 21 years as a teacher, she’s witnessed a generation of kids grow up with nearly lifelong access to smartphones, and she believes that Gen-Z is fairly self-aware of the risks of social media. Her students report often deleting the apps when they want to focus on school or are feeling overwhelmed. Studies show that adolescents are particularly vulnerable to experiencing the downsides of social media, including low self-image, social media addiction, cyberbullying, sleep loss and depression.

Amanda Jones, a librarian at a Louisiana middle school, works with a younger demographic of students, typically children aged 10-12, but she knows many of them are on TikTok too. Jones works at her school to implement different types of technology into the curriculum and commends TikTok for its learning capabilities, using it herself as an educator. The librarian of 22 years doesn’t support younger children or teens using the app, however, because she’s worried they could be exposed to inappropriate or unsafe content.

“I don’t think that kids that are 10, 11, 12, etc… should have TikTok, but if they’re going to anyways, maybe [time limits] are a step in the right direction,” Jones tells TIME.

Jones uses the app to make videos for presentations and loves the interface for it. She sees the appeal for high schoolers particularly and trusts that it’s a better fit for that age group. “Once you hit the age of 13, you kind of have to step back a little bit,” Jones says. “Your kids are growing up, and you have to let them navigate the world themselves to some extent.”

Like many educators today, Jones and Rosenberg prioritize media literacy among their students and are excited about the merits that TikTok can offer in schools. “I think it can be educational in terms of both using it as a way to learn information, but then also teaching them about verifying your sources and thinking critically,” Rosenberg says.

“As educators, I think we have an obligation to not fight the new technologies, but brainstorm with young people about ways to use them for learning and for good, and also help them identify ways that it’s perhaps affecting their mental health,” Rosenberg adds.

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