Is It Even Possible to Keep 13-Year-Olds Off TikTok?

The surgeon general wants to protect teens from the "exploitative" app

An illustration of hashtags against a blue background.
Social media has battered the self-worth of young teens.
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Surgeon General Vivek Murthy had a memorable appearance on CNN Newsroom this past weekend, issuing what amounted to a public health warning on teenagers’ social media use: “If we tell a child, use the force of your willpower to control how much time you’re spending, you’re pitting a child against the world’s greatest product designers.”

Murthy’s specifically alarmed by the preponderance of 13-year-olds on TikTok, pointing out that the ubiquitous app’s “skewed and often distorted environment” can be a disservice to children of that age, making them feel isolated and worthless. His comments arrive at a time that TikTok is already facing lawsuits from public schools for its role in an alarming youth mental health crisis.

One in five American women now face a major depressive episode before the age of 25, alongside one in 10 women. The American Psychological Association published a heartbreaking statistic last fall, right before testifying to Congress: suicide is now the second-leading cause of death for children aged 10 to 24, trailing only “unintentional injuries.”

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Is getting kids off of TikTok going to help? It stands to reason, considering these figures have all been on their unfortunate uptick since the mid-aughts, the dawn of the social media age. Psychologists Dr. Jean Twenge and Dr. Jonathan Haidt (authors of iGen and The Coddling of the American Mind, respectively) maintain a 250-plus-page Google doc of every study linking social media with mental health woes.

Speaking to Axios earlier this month, Twenge said: “The more time the teen, particularly a teen girl, spends using social media, the more likely it is that she will be depressed…Most of the large studies show that heavy users of social media are about twice as likely to be depressed as light users.”

Twenge and Haidt’s research has helped reveal four “flashpoints” in the teens-on-TikTok question: social comparison, displacement, the algorithm and pornography. Basically:

  • Social comparison: Kids start to perceive their lives in relation to others in their social media circle
  • Displacement: They spent more time online than with people IRL, or outside, or sleeping
  • Algorithm: Back to Murthy’s comments…adult brains have no shot at beating an addictive algorithm, much less children
  • Pornography: Or NSFW content in general — easier to access than ever, no matter how young you are

Accepting that eighth graders are going to add smartphones to their lives no matter what (95% of children between the ages of 13 and 17 walk around with one), the challenge here is figuring out ways to make that step more of an enriching asset, and less of a…destabilizing poison.

TikTok, for its part, does have age-related regulations. Murthy’s invocation of 13-year-olds didn’t come out of the blue; the TikTok experience levels up at that age. Anyone 12 or younger can’t post videos or comment, and their content is auto-generated for a younger audience. But like teen drivers with a provisional license, 13 to 15-year-olds can operate private accounts within their follower groups.

Note that these measures would likely put a semi-clamp on the latter two concerns (algorithm and pornography: though, let’s be honest, both could likely be side-stepped by entering a false age), yet does little to alleviate the practical concerns of an impressionable, insecure brain seeking out the app eight times a day. Perhaps they’re safe from a scammer, or worse, but they’re still susceptible to snide squabbles with a classmate.

What can parents do? There’s no easy answer, and this is another reminder of the extent to which parenting pressures have changed, and will continue to evolve. (After all, TikTok may not exist in the United States three years from now, due to international security concerns…but something else could easily take its place.) An initial step may be to gently push back the age that your children make TikTok accounts. Most sites recommend the app as 15+, and while you could argue that “being out of the loop” could lead to isolation or bullying for your child…doesn’t that describe what they’re evidently missing on the app?

If they’re insistent on joining TikTok, you could consider setting up an account with a variety of safety settings (family pairing, comment filters, screen time limits, etc.), or make a habit of sharing or watching funny/entertaining videos with them so they feel tuned in.

We stump for steering them towards real-world activities, like playing outside, hanging out with friends, reading books, building things, biking around town, jumping on trampolines, eating gummy worms, watching movies. You know. The blissful chaos of being a kid. A broken arm can be healed. A broken spirit is tougher. And honestly: if the debate becomes TikTok versus the field, even consider encouraging screentime in other arenas, like playing video games (known to improve cognitive and sensorimotor function). That’s a better option than feeling like shit while watching other tweens dance on an expensive vacation.

In many of these social settings, certain kids in the group are going to want to post the activity on some social media platform, probably TikTok, and that’s a little sad, but it’s unavoidable. At least the lot of them are still giving childhood a go, within this gloomy system they’ve inherited. Still: it’s critical that parents work to mitigate the amount of early-teens alone time kids have with the app. They deserve better, they just don’t know any better.

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