How far do TikTok’s new parental controls go?

The social media app has added three new options to its Family Pairing function, but the responsibility still lies with parents to monitor

Social media app TikTok has added new features for their Family Pairing function which increases parents' ability to restrict access, but doesn't tackle education around content consumption. Photo: Unsplash
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TikTok has announced three new additions to its Family Pairing functions, which allows parents to limit and customise the amount of time their children spend on the social media platform.

The app has an age rating of 13 and over, but according to a 2022 study by data analysts Sensor Tower, 25 per cent of users are aged between 10-19.

Family Pairing was introduced in 2020 to “allow parents and teens to customise their safety settings based on individual needs". It included screen time management, restricted mode limiting the type of content that could be seen and turning off direct messaging.

The additional functions revealed this week are aimed at “helping families establish an ongoing dialogue about safety and well-being in the digital world," says TikTok.

They include customised daily screen time limits, the addition of a screen time dashboard summarising how many times the app was opened; a breakdown of total time spent on it, as well as a mute function enabling parents to schedule which times teens can receive notifications.

Accounts below the age of 18 will also automatically be set to a 60-minute daily screen time limit, which will require a passcode to extend.

“It’s definitely a good starting point to regulate the platform for younger users,” says Nicole Clarke, director of social media and content at Tish Tash communications agency in Dubai. “The time limit gives them an understanding in context of how much time they are actually spending on the app, as often, the scrolling that we do is mindless and non-intentional.”

‘Restriction misses the bigger picture’

But social media strategist Alexandra Carvalho believes the new restrictions miss the bigger picture.

“Personally, I am not a fan of having caps on time spent on apps or online,” says the founder of Alex House of Social. “I’m a little bit skeptical when these types of restrictions are forced, especially on young people, who are at a time in their lives of independence and discovery.

“Humans have a natural tendency to rebel, and in my experience, the moment you start restricting teens, or anyone of any age for that matter, they will simply find another gateway or outlet such as Snapchat, Discord or Instagram.”

Dialogue around social media and teenagers has long tended to focus on restriction and monitoring rather than education and awareness, with the onus placed on parents to constantly monitor their children’s internet use.

“Are we having healthy conversations about how teens should be spending time on social media?” asks Carvalho. “We need to be educating teens and adults about the content they consume, that’s the bigger picture.”

Controls still require consistent monitoring by busy parents

Deemed "too dangerous to be on our children's phones” by US congressman Michael McCaul, Chinese-owned TikTok is currently the subject of a looming vote in US congress to enact a national ban — although McCaul's concerns have more to do with national security as opposed to its consumption.

Mother-of-two and co-founder of the Dubai Mums blog, Clementina Kongslund, says that restriction is not always possible without constant monitoring of children.

“When we first used the time limit feature, the reaction was not good and all we heard was ‘Why do we have to have time limits?’” she says. “However, while we can control the amount, we cannot control entirely what they are watching, it’s just not feasible.

“Monitoring children on social media is a huge effort for the parents. I don’t remember my mother looking over my shoulder as much as I am with my children, always needing to watch and be vigilant. It’s a challenge.”

Carvalho suggests setting boundaries rather than restrictions is a more effective way to communicate with teens.

Though the new restrictions might seem like a quick fix, they give users a gentle nudge to stop scrolling, or at least think about taking a break, Clarke says.

"And they then have to make the conscious decision to keep going if they want to."

If children are circumnavigating screen time restrictions, parents can download an app — Clarke suggests Freedom — which shuts social media apps down until the following day once the time limit has been reached.

"These are great for people who struggle to stay away from social media, even after the time limit pops up, as it gives them no option," she says.

Updated: March 06, 2023, 9:01 AM