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Shelter Island Reporter Column: What’s the deal on TikTok?

If you are snoring at the prospect of a TikTok ban, you haven’t been paying attention. Neither was I, probably because there is no one in my immediate family of “TikTok age.” However, when I recently watched my 4-year-old granddaughter appear to be hooked on a game on her iPad, I decided to take notice.

TikTok, introduced in 2016, has now reached 4 billion downloads world- wide and has over a billion monthly users. (A recent Wall Street Journal article wrote that usage has recently plateaued with all the negative publicity.) But it took less time to reach these staggering numbers than both Facebook and Instagram.

Not knowing much about TikTok per se, but having attended Nick Kardaras’s excellent presentation last August at the Shelter Island Library, I did know something about the dangers of addiction and technology.

Mr. Kardaras is an expert on kids and technology, and is the author of the bestselling books “Glow  Kids” and “Digital Madness.” Among his many findings, he says that smart phone “clicks” and “likes” release dopamine, the pleasure chemical in the brain similar to what happens with opioids and cocaine. Not surprisingly, the younger the child, the more vulnerable their brain is to this kind of stimulation. 

Mr. Kardaras writes that early in his research he noticed that many young people were angry, lonely, empty, confused, and self-medicating. Further study showed  people lacking nuance in their thinking and instead sorting the world into black and white (similar to the simplistic clicks of “like” and “dislike”). This kind of binary  thinking has obviously become a problem in our country, and social media is certainly not helping.

Enter TikTok and a new term in our lexicon — “TikTok brain.” According to a number of sources, due to the short nature of the videos that offer entertainment in 15-second clips, users’ attention spans may be shrinking.

A recent article in the British publication “The Week” says that early studies are showing that TikTok (and YouTube Shorts) engage users through “short bursts of thrills.” While some of the studies were on college students, the younger the children involved, the more vulnerable their brains are.

Michael Manos of the Center for Attention and Learning at the Cleveland Children’s Clinic talks about “directed attention.” This is the ability to inhibit  distractions and focus attention appropriately — even when it is something unpleasant like homework, or for adults, reading for work. Directed attention requires higher-order skills like planning and prioritizing. If children’s brains are unable to sustain their attention on something that does not create a “thrill,” it does not bode well for later schooling or the workplace.

Now let us be clear — the reason for the potential ban (or sale) has nothing to do with these issues and everything to do with the Chinese government and the potential exposure of people’s data. But it’s an easy bet that even if this ban comes about, there will be a newer app (made in the USA) with even shorter videos and even more dopamine highs.

We cannot really stop it but we must find better ways to divert our children’s attention.

Having never been on TikTok myself, I decided I should at least take a look at it before writing this column. I found that TikTok.com has an extensive “Guardian’s Guide,” which states, “The Guardian’s Guide is designed to provide an overview of TikTok and the many tools and controls we’ve built into the product to keep our community safe … Reviewing this guide, our Youth Portal, and our Community Guidelines with your teen can help your family establish ongoing dialogue about  safety in our digital world.”

TikTok’s guidelines state that a date of birth must be given when a user signs up, and that parents can link their accounts with their kids to know what content is being watched. They also offer safety tips for teens, which as I read them look as good as anything any psychologist might offer.

For example, they write that parents should set boundaries on their devices — just what I would have recommended as the number one rule. They talk about teens needing to earn their parents’ trust while at the same time respect their privacy.

Wow, this almost made me want to sign up and watch the latest crazy dance video.

Almost, but not quite.

CommonSenseMedia.org, an online publication for parents, writes that TikTok can be a kid-friendly experience if parents are supervising its use and use the safety settings. They recommend the app for children age 15 and older and that if under 15, they only use “curated, clean videos.” The experts on this website do caution that like most online apps, TikTok is always trying to sell stuff to kids. However, by pairing the account to the parents’ account, purchases can be monitored along with all other activity on the app.

New York University social scientist Jonathan Haidt’s latest book, “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness,” focuses on Generation Z, those born between 1995 and 2010.

His research is troubling. He says that Gen Z (as they are now called) is the first generation to have social media during puberty. He is convinced that this generation’s poorer educational abilities and their mental and social problems are linked to their dependence on these devices during this vulnerable stage of development. His guidelines to parents are strict and clear:

1. No smart phones before high school

2. No social media before the age of 16

3. Phone-free schools —  have them locked up during the school day

4. And instead, send kids outdoors for independent free play and socialization with each other as much as possible.

Finally, he is also in favor of banning TikTok.

So, the messages to parents on how to be more vigilant and exercise control are there. But like a lot of advice, it is only good to the extent it is followed. However, what I have not seen online, but to me is the greatest challenge, is how to create and maintain a love of reading.

This has always been important, but distractions over the years like television and Netflix have never been as seductive as these devices.  And whatever the current U.S. government policy is on TikTok, clearly these devices are not going away.

So, it’s incumbent on parents and schools to not allow them to overtake the greatest source of knowledge we have — books. I hope the children of this town can leave their devices at home and run to the Shelter Island Library and find it a lot more interesting. Their brains will thank them for it.

Coping with the Crisis
Nancy Green

Nancy Green is a retired social worker and a member of the Shelter Island Health and Wellness Alliance