TikTok, Snapchat, back to TikTok, see what’s happening on Instagram, spend 30 minutes on reels, get bored and back to TikTok. This is how Teyah Tattersall likes to spend her down time after school.
Keen to share the latest TikTok trends, she pulls out her phone in the middle of the café, excited to show me a video of the little yellow chickens that are used to decorate around Easter time, there is some twangy guitar music and one of the chickens has come to grief. It’s over in 9 seconds. Unlike Teyah who finds this amusing, I struggle to understand what makes this so funny.
My TikTok ForYou page is clearly very different from a 17 year old’s. Teyah’s friend Madeline Sinfield comes and joins us at the café. She also doesn’t find the chicken video amusing. What makes TikTok unique is how tightly the algorithm is tailored to the individual. It allows the experience of getting wrapped up in videos selected based on the content each user likes and interacts with.
Like many teens, Teyah loves watching, creating and sharing TikTok content. She is not the only teen falling into the endless scroll of TikTok. More than half of Australians feel that they have a smart phone addiction, according to a survey of 1000 Australians by Reviews.org.
Program lead of a longitudinal study of Australian children, Lisa Mundy says: “There isn’t an official diagnosis of screen addiction, but we know that that people who show signs of being addicted to screens have things like: being preoccupied; they spend a lot of their time thinking about screens; they might miss sleep because of that; they feel a loss of interest in other things.”
An Australian Bureau of Statistics report based on data gathered in 2017 and 2018 found around 90% of children aged 5 to 14 participated in screen based activities. Mundy says the pandemic played a part in establishing even higher than usual levels of screen engagement by young people, as it became a go-to leisure activity. She says: “Children and young people have increasing problems associated with screen time.”
According to the 2017-18 ABS data, the average time children spent looking at screens was around 1 hour and 25 minutes hours a day, which is 10 hours per week.
On TikTok alone, Teyah has an average screen time of 1 hour and 48 minutes a day, equating to 10 hours and 36 minutes per week. “This is a pretty average screen time for me, especially on a school day,” she says.
On March 1 this year TikTok introduced a time limit feature for app users younger than 18. The feature rolled out over a few weeks and is now automatically added to the accounts of users in that age bracket.
In making the announcement TikTok explained that teens can opt-out of the time limit feature, but said it would prompt them to set their own limits if they did so. It also sends these users weekly recaps of their time.
While any user can currently choose to set up the time limit function, teens are now automatically set to a 60 minute, daily screen time limit. They are prompted to enter a password, to continue to use the app for more than an hour. Users younger than 13 need a parent or guardian to enter the password to override the limit.
While this initiative could be very helpful to lower passive screen engagement in teens, there are obvious ways to get around it, such as lying about your age. TikTok has no way of verifying your age, so if a 15-year-old set their profile age to 19 they wouldn’t be automatically set the 60 minute screen time.
Teyah says lying about your age to social media apps is very common. “My brother has done that. I’ve done it. I don’t think I know anyone who hasn’t lied about that.”
Distinguished Professor of allied health at Curtin University Leon Straker is worried young people won’t be able to develop their own self management skills when it comes to screen time.
“If they are not doing the things, they need to do in the rest of their life because they’re dedicating too much of their time to a particular thing online … that’s when I’m worried,” he says.
Teyah’s friend Madeline also confesses to getting stuck in loops on TikTok and typically won’t stop until she has “to do dishes and eat dinner. Unless I’m like, hang on, I have to go to sleep or I have to stop.”
Straker says: “I’m getting worried that they’re getting too engrossed in a particular activity, whether that’s a screen activity or some non-screen activity, it’s the same sort of thing. It’s just that screens have so much capacity now that that’s often the engaged activity that attracts people to a large extent.”
Does Tik Tok’s screen limit actually work?
Asked if the new screen limit feature is working, Straker says: “I don’t know.” He explains that his team is promoting good self-management skills, and encouraging young people to be aware of how long they spend in each of the activities in their lives, and to incorporate variety.
Teyah says she got the notification to set up a screen limit and pressed the ‘not interested’ option. She’s never seen it again.
Having an opt-out option makes it very easy for teens or people who would most likely benefit from a screen limit, to ignore the prompt.
For users under 13 there is also the option for family pairing. Family pairing on TikTok allows a parental account to link with their teen’s account. By doing so, the parent can set screen time limits, restrict the content they are seeing and restrict who they can send direct messages to.
Senior lecturer in clinical psychology at Murdoch University Lisa Young suggests parents concerned about their child’s screen time should begin with showing an interest in what they are doing on their screens, because not all screen time is equivalent.
“Young people spend time on screens doing a myriad of different activities including talking to their friends, learning new information, playing games while having important conversations with their friends – these activities in and of themselves may actually be good for some young people,” Young says.
Friends Teyah and Madeline use social media to stay connected with each other. Madeline says, “I’m always messaging someone and then switching between different apps, but still talking to the same person.”
Director of the Social Media Research Lab at Curtin University Mingming Cheng says, if screen limits are too restrictive, people won’t actually go on that platform and like the content.
He suggests setting a limit on how frequently people can watch TikTok is just as important as setting a time limit.
“The purpose of a screen limit is to actually help people develop healthy habits and reduce their dependence on those social media distractions,” he says.
There are ways for individuals to check their screen habits are healthy. Mundy says the key to healthy screen use is balance. She describes this using the three C’s: Connect, create and contribute.
“If the young person is online, connecting with others, creating, coding videos, whatever it is, contributing to discussions actively engaging, then that’s likely to be associated with more positive outcomes compared with just literally passively viewing media,” she says.
TikTok is taking steps to help teens limit their screen use, but they are not the first app to do so. YouTube and Instagram also have similar opt-in features. Instagram introduced daily screen time reminders in 2018 and YouTube followed in 2020. While these features provide a way for young people to recognise when they need to get off their screens, experts say the real change must be self-motivated.