TikTok has said that every account held by a user under the age of 18 will have a default 60-minute daily screen time limit in the coming weeks. The changes arrive during a period in which there are growing concerns among different governments about the app’s security and ability to alter its algorithm to push certain posts.
The update, announced on Wednesday, also mirrors gaming rules imposed on minors in China, where TikTok’s parent company ByteDance was formerly based. It has since relocated to Singapore. In 2021, Chinese authorities issued new rules limiting the amount of time that minors could play online games to only an hour a day and only on Fridays, weekends and public holidays – an effort to curb internet addiction.
In the United States, families have struggled with limiting the amount of time their children spend on the Chinese-owned video-sharing app. According to the Pew Research Center, about two-thirds of American teens use TikTok.
Cormac Keenan, head of trust and safety at TikTok, said in a blog post on Wednesday that when the 60-minute limit is reached, minors will be prompted to enter a passcode and make an “active decision” to keep watching. For accounts where the user is under the age of 13, a parent or guardian will have to set or enter an existing passcode to allow 30 minutes of extra viewing time once the initial 60-minute limit is reached.
TikTok said it came up with the 60-minute threshold by consulting academic research and experts from the Digital Wellness Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital.
There have long been concerns about what minors are exposed to on social media and the potential harm it might do. A report released late last year suggested that TikTok’s algorithms are promoting videos about self-harm and eating disorders to vulnerable teens. Instagram, which is owned by Facebook parent Meta, has also faced similar accusations.
Social media algorithms work by identifying topics and content of interest to a user, who is then sent more of the same as a way to maximise their time on the site. But social media critics say the same algorithms that promote content about a particular sports team, hobby or dance craze can send users down a rabbit hole of harmful content.
TikTok also said on Wednesday that it will begin prompting teens to set a daily screen time limit if they opt out of the 60-minute default. The company will send weekly inbox notifications to teen accounts with a screen time recap.
Some of TikTok’s existing safety features for teen accounts include having accounts set to private by default for those between the ages of 13 and 15 and providing direct messaging availability only to those accounts where the user is 16 or older.
TikTok announced a number of changes for all users, including the ability to set customised screen time limits for each day of the week and allowing users to set a schedule to mute notifications.
The company is also launching a sleep reminder to help people plan when they want to be offline at night. For the sleep feature, users will be able to set a time and when the time arrives, a pop-up will remind the user that it’s time to log off.
Outside of exorbitant use by some minors, there is growing concern about the app around the world. The European Parliament, the European Commission and the Council of the European Union have banned TikTok from being installed on official devices.
That follows similar actions taken by the US federal government, Congress and more than half of the 50 US states. Canada has also banned TikTok from government devices.
US House Republicans are pushing a bill that will give President Joe Biden the ability to ban the app nationwide, which has faced opposition from some civil liberties organisations who argue that such a move would be unconstitutional. The legislation passed the Republican-controlled House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday along party lines. The bill must still get a vote on the floor of the House and Senate.