TikTok Admits It's as Clueless on Teens as the Rest of Us

A new 60-minute screen time warning on TikTok won’t stop kids from scrolling.


Users under 18 years old on TikTok will soon face a hurdle on their way to averaging nearly two hours per day in the popular video app, the company announced Wednesday. But the hurdle is a low one, so low as to barely deserve the name. 

In the coming weeks, underage users' accounts will automatically opt into TikTok's new 60-minute screen time limit. At the one-hour mark, they'll be served a prompt to stop using the app—unless, of course, they don't want to stop, in which case they can re-enter their password and keep right on watching. 

And if that's too much of an inconvenience, as more dedicated teenage TikTokers might well decide, they can opt out of the limit entirely and ignore the subsequent suggestion, delivered to those who pass the 100-minute mark in a day, to set a screen time limit of their own choosing. Other pieces of TikTok's announcement run along similar lines: Lots of well-meaning nudges, lots of if you want to's, lots of ways to opt out and continue exactly as you were.

For all their practical impotence, however, TikTok's changes are exemplary of the present state of America's kids-and-phones debate in two key senses: First, that a major tech company is even making a show of self-regulating like this—complete with a tacit admission that unlimited screen time is bad, especially for children—is indicative of where research results and public opinion are trending. And second, all the large-scale ideas for regulation in this space are toothless, terrible, or both.

It wasn't always obvious that we'd come to the current consensus on smartphones and the social media they make perpetually available to us. Think back to the 2008 presidential election, for instance. Then-candidate Barack Obama's team was using Facebook as no campaign had before. People were posting weird fan videos for Ron Paul on YouTube. It was exciting! It felt like real engagement, real access. There was a broad sense of optimism that massively increasing our intake of information and communication with one other was a good thing. It would make us better-informed citizens more capable of holding power to account.

A decade and a half later, what can you do but laugh at the naiveté of digital youth? Recent years—and the last two weeks in particular—have seen a rapid convergence, spanning much of the political spectrum, on the conclusion that the technological and information environment we've made has serious downsides for politics, mental health, and more. 

That's not to say there are no benefits of smartphones and social media. Obviously, they have advantages, and I myself use both. But it turns out spending one's life, from age 2 onward, with a screen affixed to one hand is actually not fun, not healthy, and not terribly conducive to rational thought, good citizenship, or enjoying time with friends and family in real life

So now there's an urge to regulate, but the regulatory ideas are lacking, to say the least. Some are as useless as TikTok's screen time "limits," which aren't really limits at all. TikTok's language around one new feature, a sleep time reminder, is particularly revealing on this point: It can "help you get to bed when you want to," and you can also "delay your sleep time," if you like. 

As I know from personal experience—having repeatedly set and ignored screen time limits on my iPhone—regulations of this kind can at most play a supporting role. They only work if you want their help to control your own behavior hour after hour, day after day, forever. Do we expect to find that kind of habitual self-discipline in screen-obsessed children?

Worse than regulations that would accomplish little, though, are the regulatory ideas that would do far too much. Some proposals would violate the First Amendment. Others would put millions of people's privacy and personal documents at risk, give prosecutors overbroad latitude to hassle tech companies, or upend the whole internet as we know it. As is often the case, involving the state in this problem will almost certainly make it worse.

I continue to think personal, familial, and voluntary communal regulation of our tech use is by far the best choice we have. Yet even there the ideas on offer are messy at best. Take the single biggest question I see discussed among parents of children school-aged and younger: When do you let them get a smartphone?

It seems simple enough: Pick a reasonable age and hold the line, just as you do with any number of childhood milestones. My own inclination is to pin phone ownership to college or a first job or car.

But phones and social media have a unique place in kids' social lives. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt recently explained, parents face "a trap—a collective action problem": Because so much social activity and coordination happens asynchronously online, forcing one kid to go without a phone or a given app can leave them worse off, though all the kids "would be better off if everyone quit."

Being the sole child of Luddites in your friend group is a major social detriment. It's isolating. It's lonely. Living in a red-eyed thrall to "a little bit of everything all of the time" sucks, but missing out on the group chat sucks too.

In the long run, it's reasonable to hope we'll figure out how to handle these new technologies better than we do now, to more reliably reap their benefits while avoiding their risks. I don't know that I share that hope, but I do find it reasonable. Ideas for fixes might get better. Companies like TikTok might adapt their business models to make temperance and profit more compatible goals.

But parents grappling with how to raise their kids in the digital age can't wait for society writ large to adapt itself to the truly novel means of communication which have so completely infiltrated our lives in the last 30 years. That will be a project on the scale of decades, if history is any guide, and childhood doesn't happen in the long run.