A national parental advocacy nonprofit says that the new features TikTok is touting as a way to protect kids are an ineffective public relations stunt.
TikTok is facing increasing pressure over both its security risks and its effect on society. Earlier this week, President Joe Biden urged Congress to pass a bill that could authorize the government to outlaw the popular app.
At the same time as lawmakers debate banning TikTok, largely over its Chinese ownership, parents are sounding alarms about its impact on children.
To address their concerns, the company recently announced a 60-minute time limit on people under 18 using the app, after which they or a caregiver would need to enter a code to continue using it. It also added features designed to give families more information and control over how much time kids spend on TikTok: custom daily screen time limits, a screen time dashboard parents can access, and a setting that allows parents to schedule when to mute notifications from the app.
“We hope these features will continue to help families establish an ongoing dialogue about safety and well-being in our digital world,” TikTok wrote on its blog.
Shelby Knox, campaign director at nonprofit advocacy group ParentsTogether, says that this isn’t nearly enough to protect kids. In an interview with the Daily Dot on Wednesday afternoon, Knox said TikTok is far more concerned with profits than children’s health and wellness. She said its new features are easy for the vast majority of kids to bypass and put the onus on parents, who she acknowledged bear some responsibility to regulate kids’ use of the internet, but are outmatched by social media giants.
“This is part of the pattern of social media companies telling parents it’s your responsibility to protect kids online, but we’re a billion-dollar company who is basically unregulated who has access to your child and our profit model is keeping your child online without any concern for their safety,” Knox said.
While TikTok is currently on the hot seat, Knox said that all social media platforms can be harmful to children. She opined that companies like Meta, Google, and others are probably “relieved” that TikTok is currently the one under fire.
Knox pointed out that the age of social media has corresponded with increases in mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and eating disorders in minors, and exposed kids to harmful content like child sexual abuse materials.
She also noted that the United States heavily regulates children’s products, from car seats to toys and bedding. Yet social media companies, she said, are largely unregulated in spite of the fact that most American kids are on at least one platform, if not several.
“They could design these platforms with children’s safety in mind. We have examples of that,” Knox said. She said that companies could limit data collection, set privacy controls, and make it more difficult for unknown adults to contact kids online, which puts them at risk of exploitation. They could also make their products less addictive.
“Scientists have said that TikTok’s design is intentionally addictive,” Knox added.
Knox says TikTok has changed how Gen Z uses the internet. She pointed to an article in Forbes that likened the platform to “digital crack cocaine” for how it releases dopamine in the brain, which is particularly concerning for the developing brains of children.
In 2021, Forrester found that 63% of American kids between 12 and 17 used TikTok on a weekly basis.
Knox doesn’t expect that social media companies will change their ways absent government regulation because they make their money from endless scrolls and algorithms that keep adults and children online for as long as possible so they can serve them more advertisements.
That’s why ParentsTogether wants the government to force TikTok and other social media platforms to do better.
“We’re not calling on anyone to outlaw anything, be it outlawing TikTok entirely,” Knox said, adding, “Any social media or gaming platform that children interact with has to be designed with children’s safety in mind.”