The advent of social media has arguably had a profound effect on society, and experts say that this now-popular form of communication and entertainment presents many dangers to younger children.
The website and app TikTok attracts many children and youth and is marketed as a “parent friendly” site where children could upload lip sync videos and copies of their artwork. Over time, the app evolved into a site for ages 15 and up and has now become a site that is anything but parent friendly.
TikTok is owned by the Beijing-based company ByteDance, which is backed by the Chinese government, according to the U.S. Department of State. Ironically, while TikTok may have originated from China, most of its content is banned in that country.
While TikTok may have age restrictions, Augusta child psychologist Dr. Jody Frey says that kids find ways to circumvent the age-restricted access and may visit the site without their parents ever knowing.
One major concern about the site is the lax security concerning the gathering and management of personal information. The New York Times reported that in 2020 that ByteDance was fined $5.7 million for violating the Children’s Online Privacy Act.
Online sexual predators and identity thieves can use the site to contact potential victims, Frey warns.
Over the past several years, so-called “challenges” have been offered on the site. Initially, the challenges, such as the “bucket challenge” were innocent. Kids (and adults) might be challenged to endure having a bucket of ice water poured over their heads.
However, the challenges then turned to, among others, enticing kids to eat Tide Pods.
In 2021, children have been challenged to commit and film property crimes such as damaging the plumbing in their school bathrooms. Another challenge invited kids to commit assault by filming themselves slapping a teacher.
Other challenges in 2022 include the dangerous trend of cooking chicken in the over the counter cold remedy NyQuil.
According to Frey, children begin to become more socially aware around the age of 10. At that age, children begin to seek peer approval by adopting popular hairstyles and fashion trends. From the greasers of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1970s to the goths of the 1990s, non-conformity has been, in its own way, conformity.
“We all grow through that phase where we seek approval, but with social media, it isn’t about clothing styles, but how many hits or likes they can get on social media,” Frey said.
According to Frey, the kids participating in the dangerous and sometimes illegal challenges are not mature enough to consider the consequences of their actions before they act on that impulse to “seem cool.”
Sexual topics and alternative sexualities are also freely discussed on the site. Hundreds, if not thousands, of videos are available that urge youngsters to become “gender fluid,” to reject their “birth assigned gender” and create their own pronouns such as “zi” or “mah.” Sometimes the videos are purposely made to resemble cartoons or kid shows that discuss topics that, in internet lingo, are NSFW (not safe for work).
Ashley Hopkins, assistant professor of communications at Augusta University, says that sites such as TikTok can be a good resource for mature teens who identify as LGBYQA, but most of the material is simply not suitable for pre-pubescent kids.
While Frey acknowledges that society has come a long way in acceptance of gay and transgender people, he says allowing youngsters to be introduced to such video material can create sexual confusion where none once existed and can lead to depression and even suicidal thoughts.
Hopkins agreed and said the problem with TikTok is the inability to fully monitor the site in an effort to block or screen out certain videos.
“The problem for parents is that they cannot control what comes over the news feed since it is all recommended viewing, so really anything can pop up,” Hopkins said.
A peer reviewed article by Christian Montag of Ulm University in Ulm, Germany, and others and published in the journal Frontiers in Public Health, titled On the Psychology of TikTok Use: A First Glimpse From Empirical Findings, says that the long-term effects on children viewing material on TikTok has not been fully explored and that research data is “scarce.”
“Clearly, young TikTok users are also confronted with harmful health content, including smoking of e-cigarettes. Moreover, the health information learned from TikTok videos often does not meet necessary standards,” the article states. “The many obviously negative aspects of TikTok use are in itself important further research leads.”
According to Frey, the best defense for parents is a proactive approach. They should not treat social media as a babysitter. Frey says that parents have to do more than just monitor their kids’ online usage; they must set an example by engaging their children as if the internet didn’t exist at all.
“My kids called me boring when they were growing up, but now they realize that having that strong family unit affected the choices they made later in life,” Frey said. “My father worked long hours, but he made sure he was active in my life even if it was just taking me fishing from time to time. We never caught anything, but we talked and that was important to me growing up.”
Even though COVID-19 has had a devastating effect over the past two years, Frey says it is important for parents to provide outlets such as sports, the arts or even church activities for their kids to minimize the amount of time they spend on social media.
Frey also contends that there is little research on the long-term effects of social media on children; however, he insists that interpersonal, as opposed to digital, interaction is a key factor in a child’s transition into a mentally healthy adult.
Hopkins, who teaches courses on social media and its many applications, goes a step further and says everyone, adults as well as kids, could benefit from taking breaks from the internet.
“Let’s face it. Social media is here to stay. Most young people get their news from social media as opposed to traditional media but taking a break and enjoying the real world is never a bad thing,” Hopkins said.