Will TikTok Time Limits Improve Teen Mental Health?

June 26, 2023   •  Posted in: 

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 5 years, you’ve probably heard of TikTok. TikTok is a video-based social media platform that’s gained immense popularity, especially with teens.

Reports show that two-thirds of teens worldwide have a TikTok account, and there are 1 billion users (of all ages) of the app. Teens spend an average of 91 minutes a day on TikTok – an alarming number to many parents and other adults.

It’s well-documented that social media can have a negative impact on teen mental health. Screen time, in general, can also have negative effects.

In response to these concerns, TikTok recently implemented a time limit for users under 18 years old. While some experts say it’s a step in the right direction, many others are concerned it’s not enough.

So let’s dive into it: Will TikTok time limits do anything to truly improve teen mental health?

 

The impact of social media on teen mental health

There is a considerable body of evidence suggesting social media use – at least too much social media use – is harmful for teen mental health.

A large UK study including over 10,000 teens found that social media usage was associated with significantly higher likelihood of psychological distress, including symptoms of anxiety and depression[1]. In addition, teens who spent over 3 hours a day on social media were most likely to report poor mental health.

One study surveying over 1700 young adults found that young people who were in the highest 25% of social media usage were much more likely to have depression than their peers who used social media less[2].

Research has also found links between social media use and other mental health conditions, like eating disorders and body dysmorphia[3].

This isn’t to say social media is all bad. Other studies have found that social media can have some mental health benefits for teens, like finding community and belonging (especially for teens who aren’t able to find that in their physical environment). But, in general, it seems clear that social media does increase the risk of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and more for teens.

 

The TikTok time limit and its potential impacts on teen mental health

In response to the valid concerns about how the hour and a half an average teen spends on their app, the developers behind TikTok have created a time limit for users under the age of 18.

According to a recent press release, this is how the time limit feature will work: All users under the age of 18 will automatically be placed on a 60-minute time limit on the app. When teens have spent an hour on TikTok, they will need to enter a passcode and consciously make a decision to continue using the app. Kids under the age of 13 will need to have their parents enter a password to extend their time to up to 90 minutes.

In addition, all teens who spend an average of 100 minutes a day or more on TikTok will be prompted to set their own time limits if they decide to opt out of the 60-minute time limit. Parents can also create a paired account with their teen to set their own time limits for their children.

TikTok states that just being aware of how much time they’re spending on TikTok will help teens make healthier choices. They say they consulted with recent research as well as with experts at the Digital Wellness Lab at Boston’s Children Hospital in order to create these features.

The new time limit feature is a step in the right direction towards minimizing the negative impact of social media. But many experts say they’re not enough, and some say it’s not likely to work at all.

The Tech Oversight Project, which provides accountability for Big Tech companies, said in a statement: “Companies like YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok centered their business models on getting kids addicted to the platforms and increasing their screen time to sell them ads. By design, tech platforms do not care about the well-being of children and teens.” Representatives of the Tech Oversight Project claimed that the time limit feature was a “fake ploy to make parents feel safe without actually making their product safe.”[4]

Addiction of Technology

Delve into the world of technology addiction with Dr. Jantz as your guide. Teenagers and young adults devote up to 8 to 12 hours daily to screens, struggling to break free from the addiction. In this podcast, Dr. Jantz explores the issues surrounding excessive technology use, especially for the younger generation, and offers strategies to overcome it.

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So why aren’t many people happy about this?

First of all, many experts, parents, and even teens themselves feel this feature won’t stop most teens from overusing TikTok. For teens 13 and up, it’s easy to simply enter the passcode and continue using the app. They can also turn off the 60-minute limit altogether. Critics say that for a time limit to actually be effective, it needs to be firm – and teens shouldn’t be able to get around it.

Although awareness of time may help some teens make healthier decisions about screen time, it may not be that easy for most to simply stop. And the research report that TikTok cites in their press release, which allegedly “proves” being more aware of time helps young people make more intentional decisions, was supported by TikTok itself.

Experts also say social media use can become addictive. In an interview with NPR, a psychologist likened TikTok to an adult gambling at a slot machine. She makes the point that simply asking the person gambling if they’d like to stop after an hour is likely to be futile – just as futile, she says, as TikTok’s new feature.

In contrast, TikTok’s China-based parent company, ByteDance, has created mandatory 40-minute usage limits for Chinese users under the age of 14. Kids are also blocked from using the app during sleeping hours.

 

How to support digital wellness for your teen

This article is not making a policy stand on whether or not TikTok’s time limit feature is a good idea. But we do know many parents of teens will feel these new limits will not be enough to help their teen spend less time on social media.

Regardless of specific apps’ time limits and features, there are ways that you, as a parent, can support your teen in developing healthy digital habits. If you’re concerned about your teen’s screen time, try following these tips.

Set boundaries

Whether or not TikTok has a time limit feature, don’t forget you can also set boundaries around screen time. This is just like any other boundary you might set for your teen. In the same way that you might have family rules around chores and curfew, set boundaries and rules about screen time as well.

Decide how much screen time you are willing to allow your teen to have every day. Work collaboratively with your teen to decide on specific parameters, like what time they’ll be able to get on social media (for example, will they be allowed to be on their phones after bedtime?). Allowing your teen some say in these decisions may help you to get buy-in.

Foster offline life

Help your teen create meaningful connections and interests outside of their online world. Encourage them to spend time with their real-life friends. Spend quality time together. Explore new hobbies they can try, like a local dance class or going to concerts.

When your teen has a full life outside of social media, they may be less likely to look to social media for recognition and approval.

Model healthy digital habits

Teens learn not just from what you say, but also from what you do. Take a look at your own digital habits. How much time do you spend on your phone? Do you find yourself checking your phone while you’re spending time with your teen?

This might be setting a bad example for your teen about what a healthy digital life looks like. If you’re addicted to social media, try to address this within yourself before addressing it with your teen.

Get professional help

If your teen continues to struggle with having limits around screen time, then they may benefit from professional mental health support. Although social media addiction isn’t yet included as a formal diagnosis in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM), “Internet Gaming Disorder” is.

Some of the symptoms of Internet Gaming Disorder – like preoccupation with gaming, and having withdrawal when gaming is taken away from them – could be applied to social media addiction as well.

The Center • A Place of HOPE is a leading mental health treatment facility for depression, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders, addiction, and more. We also specialize in treating relationship issues, including those between parents and teens. To learn more about our programs, get in touch with us today.


[1] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31193561/
[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4853817/
[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5003636/
[4] https://techoversight.org/2023/03/01/tech-oversight-project-issues-statement-on-tiktoks-latest-attempt-to-deceive-parents-endanger-children-and-mislead-lawmakers/
[5] https://www.npr.org/2023/03/06/1161248138/tiktok-to-limit-the-time-teens-can-be-on-the-app-will-safeguards-help

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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