Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
The tech giant TikTok has announced new safeguards for teen users as social media companies face growing calls to better protect young people online.
The changes are meant to help teens limit their screen time and be more intentional about how much of their day they spend on TikTok, the company said on Wednesday.
“We believe digital experiences should bring joy and play a positive role in how people express themselves, discover ideas, and connect,” said Cormac Keenan, TikTok’s head of trust and safety.
The explosion of social media in the past two decades has contributed to a mental health crisis among young people, experts say. Depression rates are surging, and a third of teen girls reported considering suicide in 2021. Research also has shown that limiting screen time can make young people feel better about themselves.
TikTok users under 18 will now automatically have a 60-minute daily screen time limit. They can continue using the app if they enter a passcode, but the company says that forces users to “make an active decision to extend that time.”
Users under 13 will also have a 60-minute daily limit, and a parent or guardian can enter a passcode that extends their daily usage for another half hour.
TikTok will send every teen account a weekly recap of their screen time, and it will also prompt teen users who spend more than 100 minutes on the app to set a daily limit.
The company said it settled on the 60-minute default limit after consulting academic research and experts from the Digital Wellness Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital, though Keenan added that “there’s no collectively-endorsed position on the ‘right’ amount of screen time or even the impact of screen time more broadly.”
How people spend time on social media matters too
Linda Charmaraman, a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women, told NPR that the limits appear to be a good-faith effort by TikTok to regulate how young people use the company’s service.
“I think it’s actually an interesting step for a social media company to finally wake up to the call from the public to put in some controls to show that they’re not just about [getting] as much time as possible on their apps, as many clicks as possible on their apps,” she said.
But Charmaraman noted that some young people may lie about their age to circumvent the safeguards, and that the amount of time spent on social media isn’t always correlated with the quality of the experience.
“For some people, they could be on [social media] for three hours and feel very connected,” but “other people could use it for 15 minutes and feel traumatized by what they’re looking at,” she said.
Rather, Charmaraman said, users who actively interact with other people on social media may have better experiences than those who passively scroll. “In that case, the motivation behind what you’re doing on social media is more important than how long you’re spending on it,” she said.
In addition to issues of safety for young users, TikTok – whose parent company, ByteDance, is based in Beijing – also continues to face questions about whether its user data is safe from officials in China. TikTok has denied sharing data with the Chinese government.