It seems the newest generation of adults is finally catching on: social media is bad for you. In the past fifteen years, we’ve seen Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and TikTok all experience their heyday; they are all still massively popular, and TikTok is currently in the lead. Yet, as large numbers of adults limit their social media time, screen time has risen among a particular demographic: children. We may be starting to leave social media behind, but children are just getting on it.
Social media is how many children spent their at-home pandemic time; forced into isolation, they had nowhere else to turn. These statistics tell part of the story: in 2020, TikTok’s annual revenue multiplied fivefold; its U.S. users doubled. Now, more than a quarter of global users are under 18, and more are female than male. Average U.S. engagement per day is over an hour. Overall, social media use increased dramatically during the shutdown; adults used it to stay connected, while parents struggling to work at home or hold down jobs left their children to be babysat by technology.
Now we see the fruits: isolation from the recent pandemic has accelerated existing downward trends in children’s behavior and education. Any school teacher will tell you that the new epidemic is a spike in wildly disruptive and inappropriate student misbehavior, fueled partly by students’ shared love of Internet videos. Students who were previously well-behaved in school have begun to act out. Students know shocking words that one wouldn’t even normally hear on television or in their families. Students know a huge number of inappropriate gestures and dance moves, and they all learn them around the same time. In schools, students congregate around screens at any opportunity; and if not that, they spend their time talking about what’s online.
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These behavioral problems are, of course, in addition to the Covid panic-induced learning loss and mental health damage that has been inflicted upon the majority of students in the United States. Yes, students certainly are acting out due to the immense mental strain of Covid anxiety and isolation; the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force now recommends additional screening for anxiety disorders, including for children as young as eight.
But Covid didn’t teach children creative law-breaking, pranks, obscene words, and inappropriate gestures. Social media did. You may have heard of the TikTok trend of “devious” or “diabolical licks,” which peaked in fall 2021. Middle and high school students posted videos of themselves stealing or vandalizing school property, resulting in arrests as well as thousands of copycats across the United States and other countries. This was a fast-spreading epidemic. The original video was posted on September 1; it was removed on September 13; all videos perpetuating the trend were banned by TikTok two days later. In those two weeks, the “devious” hashtag had gained over 200 million views.
We let this happen; we’ve become complacent to the dangers of the Internet. TikTok’s history is a history that’s been repeating itself in other social media platforms for nearly two decades. But we’re too used to the old, familiar warnings; we’ve stopped paying attention.
TikTok was launched in 2016 by the Chinese company ByteDance. A few years later, when TikTok’s popularity accelerated in the U.S., Donald Trump’s administration attempted to ban it over security concerns. But the ban was reversed by new president Joe Biden soon after. Just months earlier, though, TikTok had paid a large amount of money to settle a class action lawsuit regarding the transfer of personally identifying data to Chinese servers. However, TikTok’s privacy and data practices aren’t actually considered to be worse than other social media companies’.
Indeed, TikTok has the usual problems of any social media application. Online predators use it to lure children, and obscene content often flies below the radar. The app’s developers did the bare necessities in terms of “protecting children”: parents can use “Restricted Mode” to limit mature content and can pair their accounts with their children’s. This, however, does not stop children from viewing videos with swearing, sexual lyrics, drug content, revealing clothing, and lewd dancing. Besides, children only need a small amount of tech-savvy to get around bans; many know how to dodge privacy settings by creating their own accounts and giving false birthdays. Thus, they can access “mature” videos and can post videos immediately without review or edit, opening themselves up to predators.
Other documented evils of TikTok include potential addiction; hate speech of every variety; cyberbullying (including publicly-sanctioned doxxing, giving out identifying information to make someone a target); videos of live suicides; development of neurological disorders; and underage girls posting sexualized videos of themselves. The platform is also morally liberal in its values, banning, for example, videos promoting conversion therapy.
Again, it’s not just TikTok; social media consumption in general is bad for mental health. It’s particularly damaging to girls’ mental and physical health; since lockdowns began, we’ve seen increasing numbers of hospitalization for eating disorders in young women, despite overall hospitalizations decreasing among the young during the pandemic. Peer pressure and social media have dramatically increased the number of children being taken to transgender clinics without consulting a psychologist first, disturbing even a prominent transgender psychologist. And TikTok’s format is particularly bad: putting anyone in front of a screen all the time damages mental health, while watching short videos consecutively can decrease attention span.
In March, a set of state attorneys general began an investigation into whether and how TikTok harms children. Perhaps in a few years they will come to the conclusion that anyone with common sense has already made: TikTok drowns the soul in an ocean of evil for every raindrop of good it brings.
The Internet is different from how it was when we adults were children; it has far more evil (if also more good), and obscene videos are advertised straight to our children. Evil on the Internet no longer lies waiting to be discovered; it springs out on the attack.
Parents and teachers must see that we are in a war. The Internet is not an open field with a few potholes; it is a loaded minefield. Free access to the Internet puts our children’s emotional and spiritual health at constant risk, for they will run into mines wherever they turn. We need our children off of TikTok—and their Internet access strictly monitored—now. We must stop giving them unfettered computer access (especially in bedrooms!), smartphones with unlimited data, and unmonitored iPads.
It’s easy to dismiss or downplay the harms of free Internet access, or of TikTok and other social media. It’s easy to make excuses given the ubiquity of the Internet. “My child needs a smartphone to contact me.” “My child needs something to keep them occupied while I’m busy.” “I use the Internet as an incentive.” “I have educational apps on the phone.” “They need to learn to navigate the Internet on their own.” “I don’t have time to keep track of everything they’re doing.” “It’s not that bad. Most of the stuff is okay.” “My children need some privacy; they’re growing up.”
But there is no good reason or justification to give our children the freedom to seek out their own destruction. The above excuses are just that—excuses not to do the hard work of teaching and parenting. Besides, we have so much ourselves to give them: our time and attention, for one. We can give them physical toys, books, art supplies, journals, and bikes. We can give them chores and useful skills for adulthood. We can encourage friendships, give them edifying conversation and advice, and show them how to pray. We can teach them to trust in us and to speak with us. We can teach them that they are loved and wanted without having to imitate someone else’s Internet fantasy life. We can teach them that we are made for Heaven, not for virtual fantasies. We can teach them that the world is against them and wants to hurt them but that we are for them—and God is for us.
Our children cry out for emotional and spiritual nourishment. Should we give our children scorpions or snakes, in the form of social media and unrestricted Internet? No! TikTok is far more dangerous than Covid will ever be, and I have no doubt that its fatality rate is already much higher than any pandemic has ever been. Souls are at stake! Even should we find an occasional worthwhile video on TikTok—even should it be a Catholic one!—we have far safer and more edifying entertainment, not to mention far greater joys, to look forward to. Our children will never know this if we do not teach them otherwise.
[Image Credit: Unsplash]