Hoping to allay concerns about its app’s addictiveness, TikTok rolled out new screen time controls earlier this month that restricted minors under the age of 18 to a 60-minute daily screen time limit. But during a congressional hearing today before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, TikTik CEO Shou Zi Chew was questioned about the inefficiency of the new tool, forcing the exec to admit that the company had no data on how many teens continued to look beyond the standard limits. .
The question is notable because TikTok’s algorithm and vertical video-based feed are among the most addictive products to emerge from the wider tech industry in recent years. Every swipe on the app’s screen yields a new and interesting video tailored to the user’s interests, causing users to waste an inordinate amount of time on TikTok compared to older social media services.
In fact, a recent study found that TikTok is now crushing even YouTube in terms of app usage by kids and teens in markets around the world, thanks in part to its addictive feed.
The format has become so popular that it has since been adopted by almost every other major US tech company, including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Snap. So an investigation into any kind of addiction-reducing techniques is certainly warranted.
That said, the time limit TikTok has designed for teens is really more for show — it doesn’t actually stop 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 Apple’s or Google’s or third-party mobile operating systems.
At the hearing, Chew praised how TikTok was the first to launch a 60-minute viewing limit for teen users, and had other teen protections, such as disabled direct messaging for users under 16. He also noted that teen content couldn’t go viral on the For You- page of the app, if the creator was under 18 years old.
However, as the real-world impact of the teen time limit tightened, the exec had no substantial data to share.
“It’s my understanding that teens can pretty easily bypass the notification to continue using the app if they want to,” said Representative John Sarbanes (D-Md.). “I mean let’s face it, our teens are half smarter than us and they know how to use technology and they can get around those limits if they want to,” he said.
Sarbanes is right. There’s really nothing to get around the feature – just tap a button before returning to the feed when your time limit is up. A more effective mitigation technique would actually force a teen user to suspend the app completely. This could better disrupt the dopamine-fueled addiction cycle by requiring a short time-out where they are forced to do something other than continue scrolling through more videos.
When asked if TikTok was measuring how many teens still exceeded the 60-minute time limit after the new feature was added, Chew didn’t know, nor did he share any guesses. Instead, he avoided a direct answer.
“We understand those concerns,” TikTok’s CEO responded. “Our intention is to get the teens and their parents to have these conversations about what’s the right amount of time for social media,” he added, pointing out that the app offered a Family Pairing feature that enforces a real screen time limit.
In other words, TikTok doesn’t think real teen protections are for her to decide. To be fair, neither are US-based social media companies. They want parents to take responsibility.
However, this answer shows how a lack of US regulation for these platforms allows the cycle of app addiction to continue. If lawmakers don’t legislate to protect kids from algorithms that use human psychology to keep them scrolling, then it’s really up to parents to step in. And many don’t know or understand how parental controls work.
Sarbanes asked TikTok to provide follow-up by the congressional committee on how the time limits were implemented, how they were circumvented, and the measures TikTok is taking to address these types of issues.
In another set of questions, this time from Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.), it was suggested that TikTok’s addictive nature of the app and the dangerous stunts and challenges it featured “psychological warfare … to deliberately influence American 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, he also admitted he didn’t know.
“This is an industrial challenge for all of us,” he said.
TikTok’s CEO later reiterated that children’s use of the app is ultimately up to the parents. When answering questions about the right age for TikTok use, he noted that there were three different experiences aimed at different age groups: one for under-13s, another for younger teens, and another for adults. As an interesting side note, where Chew is based in Singapore, there’s no under-13 experience available, meaning his own kids aren’t on TikTok.
“Our approach is to provide differentiated experiences for different age groups — and for the parents to have these conversations with their children to decide what’s best for their family,” Chew said.