Is TikTok Bad for Kids?

An ad for a Dance Camp called "TikTok Dance Party." Targeted to young girls.
After the Dance Party, is TikTok bad for kids?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Is TikTok bad for kids and specifically for a girl entering the fifth grade? My step-daughter spent a week in dance camp. Now she is excited to share her videos when school begins. She says she wants to keep making them and aims to be a TikTok influencer this Fall. I love this little girl, but she seems so precocious. I never shared this much! Jessica, Los Angeles

Dear Jessica,

Thanks for the timely question as school begins. I hope that Dance Camp also educated their young students on social media. It’s hard to live in Los Angeles, the city of The Hype House without feeling a TikTok presence. 

Commonsense Media has a quick catch up for parents with children under age 13. Thirteen is the site’s official sign up age but there are recommendations if your child is younger and online. I am personally on uncharted territory when it comes to this platform, and the issues change every time I check in on it.

It used to be that getting Pokemon cards and Michael Jordan athletic shoes helped fifth graders gain popularity.  Now it’s social media and TikTok.. Kids look at the videos on their lunch breaks,  at recess, and after school. Of course, that only encourages young kids to get smartphones, and pushes down the age level (see my post on the provisional phone). Personally, I would try to find an elementary school that does not allow phones on campus.

But, with only a week or two before school opens, what should you do? Here are a couple of “provisional phone” lessons to talk over at home:

First, take inventory of the activities that are squeezed out because of  her time spent on TikTok. This inventory should be explicit- how many minutes is she spending  on TikTok in lieu of being outdoors, meeting friends in person,  summer reading, and soon, doing school work? TikTok videos are only 15 seconds in length, but they take gobs of time to rehearse and edit.

As you complete the inventory ask  if TikTok is compromising her ability to “be still.”  Children need to discover the importance of just being present, of being here. Some associate this with the ability to be bored, but it’s not quite the same. We do not know at what age we develop that capacity, but it needs to be nurtured before tweens get phones. It does not bode well for your step-daughter’s development if the smartphone robs her ability to just sit and “Be”.

There are some procedural questions I would also explore with her. Does anyone know how the TikTok algorithm  rewards talent and creates a star (according to the The Hollywood Reporter- it’s a not). Is this Chinese owned app “safe” when it comes to privacy and sharing? (not, according to the Indian government and issues raised by MIT computer scientists in 2020). And is posting TikTok images of friends and strangers ethical if you don’t have their explicit approval? 

And importantly, prepare your tween for social disappointment. Her videos from dance camp may be smashing, but there is lots of other content. For example, how is she going to handle it if she goes online and learns from her friends’ posts that she was not invited to a classmates’ sleep-over party or or big birthday bash? 

According to Moms who follow their tweens on to TikTok, this experience is corrosive  to mental health. They think it is creating a generation of pre-teens and tweens with “FOMO” that no adult could emotionally handle. Anxiety, social pressure, and insecurity are amplified.

Fortunately, you can monitor and supervise your step-daughter’s TikTok account today since she is only in fifth grade. But, she may shut you out by tenth grade.  By that point, her  online postings will be peer to peer. What we can glean about social media and teens (and this may change in five years) is that the content is hyper-focused on body image and appearance. And, the need for digital validation becomes addictive. 

If your step-daughter wants to be an astronaut/ a physician/ or a social media star- expose her to real people and real activities. And, if being a rising star on social media and TikTok remain on her list, then for every hour on TikTok, make an equal offsetting hour in the dance studio. In a couple of years you will not be able to monitor your child’s social media account and supervise what she posts. So, make this time precious, and use it offline.

Can Emojis Make Me Seem Empathetic?

Will an emoji improve my relationship? Or spice it up?!

A banner ad that says pump up your sexting with emojis. It shows lips, a peach, and eggplant as possible emojis.
Will emojis make me seem empathetic (or more?) Credit:

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Can emojis make me seem more empathetic? My girlfriend says I lack empathy and while I don’t think that is true, I see that I could easily sprinkle some emojis in my correspondence to her. I am not sure why she is asking me this but should I add some happy faces? It’s an easy fix!  Ryan, Sacramento

Dear Ryan:  Empathy is the buzz word these days, and it’s good to seek it wherever we can. Personally, the only emoji I wish for a big human ear with an X across it. This ‘EarX’ emoji would replace the need to shout on Zoom, “You are on Mute.”

But, to be serious, learned linguists and psychologists do think that emojis can improve written communications. Emojis can embed tone and intention and help substitute for the non-verbal cues and gestures for face-to-face communications. As you can see in the image, they can also do a lot more! But stay dubious, for there are lots of foibles and miscommunications in face-to-face meet ups too.

from the i-mode team:

Emojis were conceived alongside the Internet to clarify the written word, and  some would say, fill the empathy gap.  A Japanese  telecom team, assigned to a project called i-mode, observed that email recipients could not judge the context and intentions (for a fuller breakdown read this).  Team member Shigeta Kurita was graphically inspired  by manga and kanji. But, recall that the yellow smiley face, with two dots for eyes and a wide grin, had already become an universal symbol.

That was when Windows 95 launched. Since then emojis continue to sprout like a new language. Social media firms have been intent on marrying the emoji to convey emotion and empathy, just like you mentioned. Facebook experimented with them (circa 2012) because they hoped that users would be less angry and more compliant when friends asked them to remove photos or messages. Says a UCBerkeley psychology  professor advising Facebook’s emoticon team, ” The idea was to get people to be kinder and more polite to make for more compassionate communication.” 

A Verbal Shortcut

As emojis become an everyday auxiliary, my opinion is that we use them less for emotive means and more for speed. We add emojis to our texts and chat as they shorten the number of words to input. Emojis are a meta-language well suited for phones:  brevity counts and the emoji is a verbal shortcut. 

There seems little harm as you say in “sprinkling some emojis” through your text or chat to the girlfriend, but before you start using them remember that there is no emoji standard. Users in different countries and different cultures make different assumptions on their motivation and meaning. Using an emoji might not create that shared harmony you seek.

Furthermore, human empathy is endless, but emoji is not. In 2019 there were 2,823 symbols encoded by Unicode. If you are serious about this relationship, then ask her to comment on the emojis you choose, and specifically ask how they make her feel. Better yet, do this in person, not over chat or text! BTW, sending  fresh flowers, or cards or food always outshines emojis. 😀 😃 😄

Do Food & Phone Lack Etiquette?

Food, Phone and Etiquette. A diner pulls out their phone while eating a meal.
Food, Phone, and Etiquette. From SWNS news

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My roomies and I celebrated the end of the school year by getting a reservation at a famous local restaurant. You would recognize the name. When we were seated, two of them kept their phones out and used them throughout the meal. It was not to take pictures of the food either. The server did not say anything, but I found it disrespectful. Do food and phone lack etiquette? Miao, S. San Francisco

Dear Miao: As you note, lots of people use smartphones to photograph their meals and post food photos. One third of Americans say they can’t eat without their cellphones, but remember these type of headlines are Internet bait!  But, to cut your friends some slack (my favorite expression) perhaps they were sending texts to others in the group who were on the way, needed directions, or running late. You would have known.

You can Google to find innumerable psychology experiments on the role of “bad” phones.  Professors run trials with their undergrads and the almost universal finding is that students concentrate better, remember more, and make fewer mistakes (on exams) when the experimental condition removes phones from the room.

Food for Thought?

For this 2018 study, the researchers asked more than 300 people to go to dinner with friends and family at a restaurant. Participants were randomly assigned to either keep their phones on the table or to put their phones away during the meal. After the meal, they were asked a variety of questions, including how much they enjoyed the experience. When phones were kept on the table, participants rated the time slightly less favorably, and were more likely to feel bored.

Is Your Phone the Centerpiece?

Now let’s apply some commonsense, home-spun analysis.  Many people dine by putting their phones face down on the table. I invite you to dine with me (or vice versa). In the middle of the table is a glass vase spilling over with an aromatic arrangement of greens and flowers. We remove it so we can see each other and not sneeze!

I now replace this centerpiece with a shapely carafe of red wine. We move it out, as you don’t drink. I replace it, center table, with an oversized red brick, then a kid’s water gun, next a thick unread library book, a Mexican sombrero, and so on. The point is that each of these items is evocative, and we will not completely forget about them as we converse. Like the smell of those fragrant flowers, they are still in the background.

Sherry Turkle has suggested in her recent books (2011, 2015) that the presence of the smartphone on a table- even if we don’t use it- does at least two things to our conversation. First, it moves us away from deep, important discussions (since we might get interrupted) to more trivial matters.  Second, it imparts to our guest(s) that they are devalued, they have less than our full attention. 

Woven In..So SPEAK UP!

Smartphones weave themselves into our daily interactions in a way that no other technology can. It is their nature to be mobile. We take them where we go, and they go with us. While we are at it, let’s not discount the role of the apple watch- when you check the time in the restaurant, and you also browsing the notifications?!

It is a vicious cycle. Perhaps this is what happened at your dinner table.  When we are in a social setting that feels unfamiliar, awkward, or socially uncomfortable we are likely to pull our out phones. Then we avert the lack of words and the pregnant pauses.  Meanwhile, the more we get in the habit of doing this, the more awkward and socially distant we become. A lack of practice makes perfect! 

In closing, I circle back to the observation that your roomies, aka foodstagramers, might have been taking pictures of the plated food since the restaurant is so well-known. Social media has definitely changed how we think about where we go on vacation, the hobbies we post about, and where we eat. Perhaps we we give more importance and immediacy to sharing a meal with digital followers than to the actual people at the dining table!  I doubt we can turn the clock back, unless we eat-in at home.  Alternatively, we disconnect and vow to stay present.