Let’s Talk TikTok

Let’s Talk TikTok

I asked my son once to help me with a social media app on my phone, and he just looked at me and said, “Dad, I feel like technology is wasted on you.” Apparently, the task I needed help with was so elementary to him that it insulted his technology intelligence, if that is such a thing. The point is, we live in two very different worlds when it comes to technology; our kids know so much more than most of us do, especially when it comes to social media platforms. That shouldn’t absolve us from the responsibility of investigating that world to the point that we have somewhat of an idea what they are absorbing from these platforms.

You wouldn’t hand them the keys to your car without some type of drivers’ training, nor would you throw a child into the deep end of a pool without swimming lessons. The internet is too dangerous to just let them jump in without some instruction. If a child is given a device at the time that their social world is opening up to them as well, it is even more important to prepare them for the mass amount of information and influence that they will be exposed to.

Technology has given children access to large quantities of content at such a high speed that their brains cannot possibly keep up with the ever-changing digital landscape.

According to psychologytoday.com, excessive social media and device usage is linked to increased depression, anxiety, lack of concentration, and other mental or physical issues. This is obviously concerning, so we must try to figure out why this is happening and what we can do to help our kids navigate this powerful tool they now have access to.

First, we need to understand how digital platforms are designed to interact with us. Remember, nothing in life is free, and most of these platforms are multi-billion-dollar companies that use advertising to generate income. TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, Facebook, and the platforms in the future all want our attention on their sites, because the longer we are on them, the more advertising we will be exposed to. More time on their platform translates to more dollars for them. Our clicks or ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’ are providing the companies with data points each time we interact with the site. The data is then plugged into an algorithm that determines what advertisements a person might like the most, and this “targeted advertising” is how social media companies make their money.

So how do they keep us on their platforms when there are so many for us to choose from? Christine M. Stabler, MD, MBA, said, “Social media apps and websites have the same kind of effect on the brain as playing a slot machine. Since you don’t know the content you will see until you open the app, the spontaneous results actually cause a feeling of ‘reward’ by releasing dopamine—the same chemical linked to other pleasurable activities such as sex and eating food.”

Big Tech companies have hired behavioral scientists to master the process responsible for the digital addiction they need to keep us on their platform. These scientists are using psychological tactics to activate our dopamine levels to the same levels as if we were using an illicit drug. Advertisers have been doing this for years, but given the addictive nature of the internet, and the lack of brain development in adolescents, this could be more of an issue than we may think.

For example, TikTok’s China-based parent company ByteDance uses a highly secretive algorithm to get to know TikTok users. In 2021, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) conducted an experiment to try to discover how TikTok gets to know and keep its users. WSJ created over one hundred automated accounts (or “bots”) on TikTok’s platform. One bot named Kentucky 96 gave no personal information at all but was programmed to watch ‘sad’ or ‘depressing’ videos. After only 36 minutes, TikTok had figured out this user because it lingered or rewatched videos that were sad or depressing. 93% of the videos sent by TikTok after the algorithm detected this brief pattern had depressive content in it.

TikTok’s algorithm determined that the depressive content was useful to create engagement for this user on their site, so the algorithm pushed more extreme depressive content to Kentucky 96 to get them to watch more and more. As your child is interacting with this algorithm, it is being trained to push content to them, which is sending them deeper into a certain emotional direction. So you must ask yourself the question, are we training TikTok or are they training us?

In the case of Kentucky 96, TikTok’s algorithm was pushing someone down a more concerning path of mental illness and/or suicidal ideation because that is what it “thought” the user wanted. Remember, no other personal information was utilized by TikTok’s algorithm in this experiment, just the mere lingering over a video or revisiting the video changed what the end user ended up being fed on their screen. As Ph.D. data scientist Cathy O’Neil (from the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma) stated about algorithms, “They don’t predict the future. They cause the future.”

Secondly, we need to be aware of our children’s biases and how they play into what they see online. Confirmation bias is another way Big Tech pushes content to us. Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values.

When your children are clicking on certain things that interest them, they are typically reconfirming what they already believe to be true. It is called myside biases. These platforms are going to continue to feed us content that keeps us in that same train of thought, because they have determined that it is what will keep you on their site. When we do that, we are only going to get one side of the story or information we are seeking, which can put us in a kind of echo chamber in which we never see alternate viewpoints, opinions, or information.

Today, you don’t need a degree in journalism to produce news on the internet, which means there is very little accountability when it comes to producing stories that are synthetic, fake, or deliberately misleading. People and organizations that have an agenda will push things out that are incorrect or unreliable, often because they lack true authority to validate the information. Trolls or bots can drive a simple news story into millions of views, with hashtags and algorithms pushing the emotionally charged content across the World Wide Web in just seconds.

Another addictive component of social media for our kids is FOMO—fear of missing out. TikTok challenges are very popular and are all the craze right now. Some challenges may be funny (like dance routines, photo manipulations, or other things that appear harmless) but can have disastrous consequences if people are not careful. Online challenges can put a child’s competitive spirits to the test, and teenagers desperately don’t want to be left out, so they constantly are trolling for the newest and latest challenges.

Social media sites play a huge role in self-esteem issues as well. Young people tend to place too much emphasis on the interactions they receive (or don’t) on content they share. For instance, if they post a picture hoping to receive likes or comments and don’t get the feedback they desire, they may feel disappointed or invalidated, which may drive them to share more provocative or controversial content.

Dr. Leonard Sax stated in his book Girls on the Edge, “Girls especially feel like they are always performing for an audience, trying to become what we think the viewers want.” Constantly checking and scrolling social media sites can have a detrimental effect on schoolwork and studying as well. The distraction can lead to procrastination, less retention of information, and higher levels of stress. You may notice that your children are experiencing feelings of exclusion, loneliness, or anxiety when they see posts of others seemingly having more fun than they are.

Here are six ways that technology dependence can affect our children, adapted from an article on psychologytoday.com:

A. Undermines Self-awareness

More time on technology means less time with your own thoughts and feelings. As tech dependency increases, kids live in a state of self-alienation, estranged from their emotional selves, disabling self-awareness and self-reflection. Instead of thoughtful choices, they grow more reactive and less reflective.

B. Weakens Self-Regulation

Research has proven tech dependence increases impulsivity and lowers frustration tolerance. Without developing the ability to self-regulate, kids remain emotionally immature and mired in early childhood behaviors such as bullying, temper tantrums, and angry outbursts.

C. Diminishes Social Skills

Even when kids play games online with others, such faceless relationships rarely lead to true friendships. In this way, tech dependence tends to breed isolation and reclusiveness. The more tech dominates, the less community develops. This leaves teens with poor coping skills and limited tools for navigating relationships.

D. Undermines Empathy

When screen time replaces family or friend time, kids move through the world in trance-like states, self-absorbed and detached from others. Unempathetic and unsympathetic, they lack attunement and rapport. The basic building blocks of healthy compassion remain underdeveloped. Screen time also lessens a person’s abilities to use, understand, and manage their emotions. Emotional intelligence or empathy improves with increases in face-to-face time.

E. Stunts Motivation

Motivation toward achieving personal goals in life, which requires drive, sustained attention, and high levels of frustration tolerance, declines rapidly. Like any addict, as kids become more dependent, they start to neglect themselves and their future. When tech addicted kids are suddenly forced to interact with the world, they quickly grow discontented and irritable because, unlike technology, they can’t control the real world or the people in it. As a result, when they are faced with difficult life choices, tech dependent kids are likely to suffer symptoms of anxiety or depression.

F. Interrupts Sleep Patterns

Excessive technology use may change a child’s sleep, eating, or exercise routines. Pediatricians across the medical spectrum all confirm that the number one thing for physical and mental health for teenagers is an adequate amount of sleep. Most experts say that teenagers need between 10 and 12 hours of sleep a night. Lack of sleep due to being on devices all night has become a big issue.

The 2011 National Sleep Foundation’s Sleep in America poll found that 90% of Americans report using an electronic device in their bedroom within an hour of trying to fall asleep. Unfortunately, screens on these devices can emit blue light that interferes with our natural sleep cycles. Decreasing exposure to light in the evening, and blue light in particular, is an important way to help your body naturally prepare for sleep. Sleep deprivation mimics ADHD, so many children are being misdiagnosed due to their device habits interfering with their sleeping habits.

Try not to be reactive to the frustration you may feel right now after reading this and understanding that your child might already be affected by social media in a negative way. I want to give you some strategies that could be helpful in reversing some of the effects that may have occurred and help you to bring a more balanced approach to their social media habits.

A. Identify when technology is causing cognitive or emotional stress: Limit social media use—shut off notifications, and consider removing social media apps from phones (leaving them accessible from laptops only). Limit gaming time—anything over 2 hours is said to be getting into mental health issues, and the younger the child, the less time should be allowed on devices. Limit sites portraying negative body images, reminding children perfection does not exist; filters are not perfection but should be looked at as a fun tool. Laser-focusing on issues may be a sign it’s time to take a break from screen time. Schedule screen time, change screen colors, and remove devices from your child’s bedrooms at least an hour before bedtime to ensure they are getting adequate sleep.

B. Identify how to be a good digital citizen: protecting their own and others’ privacy, behaving in a civil rather than hostile way on platforms, balancing between in-person and online social interaction. Face-to-face time is the number one way to become more emotionally intelligent, able to read facial expressions and understand nonverbal cues.

C. Be proactive and set social media boundaries: Make a social media agreement, listing the rules for having a social media account; both the parent and child should sign it. You can find an example on www.dfinow.org/for-parents/ for free resources. Give them the privilege of process when you do this. Sit down with your children and go over it together, coming up with a reasonable and thought-out process that you all agree on.

D. Utilize parental controls: There is a list of free resources and parental controls to download on www.dfinow.org. When it comes to parental controls, consider the child’s age, digital use, gaming use, and your own parental style. Watch out for cyberbullying, gossiping, and predators. Know your child’s friends online, and their friends’ parents too. Only allow them to friend those they have met in person. Allowing random people to view your stuff makes for potential victims to predators. Predators are not always the creepy old guy living in a run-down home at the end of the block. Fellow students can be predatory today as well, especially when it comes to sexting, sextortion, and human trafficking. Turn off geolocation services on phones, apps, and sites that reveal to predators your current location.

  • Set privacy settings set to the highest level on social networks to keep strangers out.
  • Create unique passwords—use a common phrase with the first or last letters in the phrase as the password. Letters upper & lower case, numbers, and, if permitted, special characters.
  • Block bad influencers: Block the negative or inappropriate content or users.
  • Report on the site: Talk about how to report on websites, social media sites, and other search engines or platforms.
  • Know who your child’s adult mentors are at school, on teams, or on sites. You should also know their friends.

E. Communicate — about latest trends, emotions of your child, being disconnected from devices, biases, and fake news: Have digital safety talks. Include conversations that go beyond, “What is new in school?” to, “What is new online, in social media, or in gaming?” Remember to use this time to get as much new information about the technology your child is being exposed to, rather than a time to be a critical about it.

F. Help them prioritize a balanced social life: Encourage your children to have more quality, one-on-one social encounters with their peers than online interactions. Encourage them to do physical activities with their friends, rather than just communicating online. When you are together driving across town or to school, have them take the earbuds out—you have a captive audience right next to you, so this is a great time to have conversations with your child. Take advantage of those moments.

Adapted from Chapter 9 of Talking to Brick Walls by Mike Donahue