In hopes of heading off concerns over the addictiveness of its app, TikTok earlier this month rolled out new screen time controls that limited minors under the age of 18 to 60-minute daily screen time limits. But in a Congressional hearing today before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, TikTik CEO Shou Zi Chew was questioned on the new tool’s inefficiency, forcing the exec to admit that the company didn’t have data on how many teens were continuing to watch beyond the default limits.
The line of questioning is notable because TikTok’s algorithm and vertical video-based feed are among the most addictive products to emerge from the broader tech industry in recent years. Each swipe on the app’s screen delivers a new and interesting video personalized to the user’s interests, leading users to waste an inordinate amount of time on TikTok compared with older social media services.
In fact, a recent study found that TikTok was now even crushing YouTube in terms of kids’ and teens’ app usage in markets around the world thanks, in part, to its addictive feed.
The format has become so popular, it’s also since been adopted by nearly all other major U.S. tech companies, including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Snap. So an examination of any sort of addiction mitigation techniques is certainly warranted.
That said, the time limit TikTok designed for teens is really more for show — it doesn’t actually prevent younger users from watching TikTok.
A hard limit on TikTok viewing is still up to the teen’s parents, who would have to use the app’s included parental controls to set screen time and session limits. Otherwise, they could turn to other parental controls bundled with the mobile OS from Apple or Google or those from third parties.
In the hearing, Chew touted how TikTok was the first to launch a 60-minute watch limit for teen users, and had other teen protections, like disabled direct messaging for users under 16. He noted also that teen content couldn’t go viral on the app’s For You page, if the creator was under 18.
However, when pushed on the teen time limit’s real-world impact, the exec didn’t have any substantial data to share.
“My understanding is that teens can pretty easily bypass the notification to continue using the app if they want to,” suggested Representative John Sarbanes (D-Md.). “I mean, let’s face it, our teens are smarter than we are by half and they know how to use technology and they can get around these limits if they want to,” he said.
Sarbanes is correct. There’s really nothing to bypassing the feature — it only takes a tap of a button before you’re returned back to the feed when your time limit is up. A more effective mitigation technique would actually force a teen user to take a break from the app entirely. This could better disrupt the dopamine-fueled addiction cycle by requiring a short time-out where they’d be forced to find something else to do than continue to scroll more videos.
When asked if TikTok was measuring how many teens were still exceeding the 60-minute time limit after the new feature was added, Chew didn’t know and didn’t share any sort of guess, either. Instead, he avoided a direct answer.
“We understand those concerns,” the TikTok CEO responded. “Our intention is to have the teens and their parents have these conversations about what is the appropriate amount of time for social media,” he added, noting that the app offered a Family Pairing feature that does enforce a real screen time limit.
In other words, TikTok doesn’t think real teen protections are up for it to decide. To be fair, neither do any U.S.-based social media companies. They want parents to shoulder the responsibility.
This answer, however, showcases how a lack of U.S. regulation over these platforms is allowing the cycle of app addiction to continue. If lawmakers won’t create rules to protect kids from algorithms that tap into human psychology to keep them scrolling, then it really will be up to parents to figure step in. And many do not know or understand how parental controls work.
Sarbanes asked TikTok to follow up by providing the Congressional committee with research on how the time limits were implemented, how they’re being bypassed, and the measures TikTok is taking to address these sorts of issues.
In a further line of questioning, this time from Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.), TikTok’s addictive nature of the app and the dangerous stunts and challenges it showcased were suggested to be “psychological warfare…to deliberately influence U.S. children.” While that may be a bit of a leap, it’s worth noting that when Carter asked if the Chinese version of TikTok (Douyin) had the same “challenges” as TikTok Chew also admitted he didn’t know.
“This is an industry challenge for all of us,” he said.
The TikTok CEO later reiterated how kids’ use of its app is ultimately up to parents. When responding to questions about the appropriate age for TikTok use, he noted there were three different experiences aimed at different age groups — one for under-13 year-olds, another for younger teens, and another for adults.
“Our approach is to give differentiated experiences for different age groups — and that the parents have these conversations with their children to decide what’s best for their family,” Chew said.