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TikTok’s time limit for teen users is barely a step ahead of regulation

Cover image for TikTok’s time limit for teen users is barely a step ahead of regulation

Photo: Florian Schmetz

Photo of Hanna Kahlert
by Hanna Kahlert

Social platforms have long danced on the outskirts of legal regulations, from Facebook’s issues with misinformation to questions surrounding the mental health implications of apps like Instagram and TikTok. With the new ‘Bold Glamour’ filter on TikTok making the effect look more ‘natural’ than ever, the mental health implications – especially for young teens – are likely to become more pressing.

TikTok in particular has been the focus of privacy concerns as well, with Donald Trump threatening to ban it, ultimately forcing parent company ByteDance to establish a separate branch for the social platform with a US (and EU) base to remain on app stores. With political tension now impacting the social apps’ perception, a new bill is now under talks in the US Congress, which would permit restrictions and outright bans on foreign software on the grounds of data capture.

In the middle of this rising regulatory pressure, TikTok has rolled out a new feature: time limits for teen users. The update means that every user under the age of 18 will automatically have a 60-minute screen time limit set, with teen users sent a ‘screen time’ report weekly, allowing them to keep track of their usage of the app. To continue using the app, teens will have to enter a passcode, and for under-13s, they will have to enter a passcode that only their parents will have access to if family controls are set up.

The new features aim to limit usage of a social platform in an attention economy where all entertainment propositions (social and beyond) are competing for as much time and attention as possible. However, they could also effectively act as ‘lip service’ to this need for usage regulation without fundamentally impacting user behaviour; the time limits can be changed in the settings of the app, or overridden easily with the passcode, and are easily bypassed if a user simply lies about their age when signing up. Unless one needs to upload a legal ID to prove they are above age (something TikTok is unlikely to be able to do without repercussions, given the controversy surrounding its information privacy and security), this move, while seemingly progressive, has little in the way of substance.

However, for the company to make such a move now is a giveaway of a broader strategic play afoot: it is a defensive strategy to pre-empt criticism, in light of potential regulation on the horizon. Social platforms are at a crux point right now: Meta has been losing money in its advertising and Reality Labs division, and the userbases of all of its apps are aging; Twitter’s subscriptions are still not even making enough to cover the interest on the dept incurred in Musk’s acquisition; and niche challengers are finding it difficult to generate significant uptake, given the incumbency of the existing platforms and over-abundance of newer, smaller apps trying to fill in the gaps. The advertising revenue and investment potential, which has largely powered social platforms’ growth up until now, is slowing, and regulation is now starting to catch up. Subscriptions will be a hard sell for social propositions that have always been free, and innovation is stagnating, with a metaverse still on the distant horizon and AI content and content-for-purpose (e.g., marketing, advertising, (mis)information) saturating existing social platforms, reducing their ‘social’ value proposition.

TikTok’s new user age ‘restrictions’ are the headwind of larger and more fundamental changes afoot in the world of social.

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