Should Teen Remove TikTok?

A Mom is wondering where she and her teen stand on this issue….

A juxtaposition of the tik-tok corporate logo and a tick-tock kid's toy clock from Fisher Price.
TikTok: not your average learning toy !

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Should my teen remove Tiktok from her phone? During the lockdown she and her best friends have been getting together and making up choreographed dances. It’s a lot of fun and I love being their audience. The app has helped us keep active and share things. Even though we like it,  I am concerned by what I read. It doesn’t seem good and I don’t want her to have spyware on the phone. Should I ask my teen to take the app off her phone, or am I just having a knee-jerk reaction? Madeline, Novato

Dear Madeline: This one is above my pay-grade, as the expression goes, so I will just offer some general comments. I am reading and watching the same stories as you.


I would use this occasion as an opportunity to talk about social media with my teen. The political fray gives you a chance to remind them that social media is more complicated than the plot of ‘Games of Thrones.’ On the Internet, nothing is permanently private, and what teens post, in drips and drabs, (ie, their digital exhaust) could become a permanent record. That might not seem so important in ninth grade, but it could become a liability for employment later on. Moreover, postings can be manipulated and changed without direct permission. Kids seem to naturally understand the idea of song covers- most of the time a musical reinterpretation (the cover) is creative and good, but it could be juxtapositioned for bad.

You, or the Algorithm?

The second issue I would discuss with my teen is the “pop stardom” that might lure them to TikTok. Music, dance, and humor come naturally, and getting that 15 seconds of fame is like, well, getting into an Ivy League school, but better. When you commit to social media, you also feel obligated to package and promote yourself. But, sometimes, it’s not about us, but rather, about the the algorithm; how does it know just what to show you and when? Whatever your teens social investment in  TikTok, there will be new venues to be conquered: just this week Instagram announced Reels, a brand new video feature.

As we grow more accustomed to smartphone technology and become more sophisticated with it, apps like TikTok might appear very primitive. Slapstick comedy is often an entry point during the infancy of a medium. Do readers, or their grandparents, remember vaudeville performances at movie theatres or Alan Funt’s “Candid Camera” on television? One source says that TikTok is like future social media in which the least amount of effort is expended to be a content creator with a shot at viral fame or at least a few laughs.

You, or Where you Go?

So, while the content may be simple or funny, the underlying app may not be. The content is delivered within a smartphone (aka computer) that could potentially be advanced, at the data collection and surveillance level. In reading why India banned TikTok, it was ostensibly because Indian soldiers were involved in a crash with Chinese troops in the Himalayas. We civilians don’t know whether the app was tracking the soldiers’ movement through hidden code or whether this an international row motivated by political tensions, the economy, or something else.

One of the issues that goes unsaid in social media is that the content and posts of individual users is probably not that significant to providers- but information harvested from their devices could be. It’s a plus when we want to track Covid, but dangerous in other situations. A malicious app could contain code that extract the names of contacts, recent phone activities, the usage of other apps and more.

It’s hard to read the clock-face of TikTok, but it does make sense to talk though these ‘timely’ issues with your teen and listen to what she has to say. No doubt teens are one step ahead, neither turning to Microsoft or Instagram, and instead, trying out brand new platforms.

Is Video Better than a Call?

Why does graduate student resist a voice call?

This is a black and white photo of  Pittsburgh Mayor Peter Flaherty at the first public demonstration of the Picturephone on June 30, 1970. AT&T Archives & History Center
PIcturephone, 1970 (AT&T Archives)

Dear Smartphone: I teach graduate students and now do so over a virtual classroom. Over the summer, one of my students has to finish a paper and then look for a job in this country. He checks in with me once a week. I can’t figure out why he insists  on using Zoom video for these meetings instead of a voice call. We are not sharing documents or anything like that. Dieter, Berkeley


Dear Dieter: I believe you have identified a generational trend. Over the past three or four years, live video has grown in use. One data source says one-fourth of young people in the US video chat on a daily basis. During the pandemic it has became even more mainstream.

Your student probably finds a loss of ‘information’ when the visual channel is absent. You, on the other hand, may find it burdensome, or at least cognitively challenging to have both voice and video merged, particularly if the video quality is poor. Younger people seem to be more forgiving of asynchronous talk and fuzzy pictures. 

SEE The PICTUREPHONE!

A while back I posted a snapshot of the AT&T picturephone to Instagram. I was surprised how many young people did not know about this invention. They were shocked that it took more than 50 years to become mainstream because it seemed so natural! Picturephone service was costly and the technology was well ahead of its time as the video demands fast data speeds, like 5G. Here is a link to its debut.

Back then, most people never used a Picturephone but it was the butt of jokes about the need to take out the hair curlers, get a shave, etc. Today, we makeup similar stories about having an extra “zoom shirt”  on the back of the chair for that impromptu meeting online.

SEE THE CHANGES!

Our devices, and habits, are continually updating. I have an older friend who remembers when her well-to-do grandparents first allowed a phone in their home. The ring-ring was considered to be an interruption, so the butler answered for the householder. A similar protocol evolved in offices, where assistants screened incoming calls. The invention of  caller ID and the answering machine minimized their role, and then, mobile phones ushered in the era of text.

If your student wants to use both voice and image, it could be because they have grown accustomed to distance education via Zoom. Or, if they are from overseas, they may be used to calling back home with video through an Internet connection on Facetime or Skype. These platforms work over the Internet and there are no phone charges. 

If you don’t want to video with the student, hopefully you will be back in your (IRL) classroom soon. 

Need Bluelight Glasses?

Do I need blue light glasses? How do I separate fatigue from facts?

This is a stamdard chart showing the electromagnetic spectrum wavelength. Humans perceive visible light as colors because of these different wavelengths.
Will glasses block the blue light?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I saw my gorgeous daughter-in-law for the first time since the lockdown, and was surprised she now wore glasses. When I asked, it turns out these are not prescription glasses, just a frame with special lenses to filter out “blue light”  from the computer screen. This is all new to me.  Is it useful and should an older person, like me, be filtering the blue light too? Esther, Corinthian Island

Dear Esther: Chances are that your daughter-in-law spends a lot of time on the computer now that the office is closed and business is conducted remotely. Until the lockdown, office workers could break-up their screen time with in-person meetings, voice phone calls, and a beverage break. Now, it is straining on the eyes (and well being) to focus on a single screen, or multiple ones, for eight to ten hours a day. It’s  hard to sort out the effects of general eye fatigue from the specific effects of blue light.

Citing from a Harvard Health report, blue light is visible light with a wave length between 400 and 450 nanometers. LED displays and specifically the backlight displays on smartphones, tablets, and laptop computers look “white” but they are emitting blue light. These high wave lengths have more energy per photon of light than other colors so at high enough doses, they could cause damage when absorbed by various cells in our body.

As more computer users worry about their eyes and clamor to get protective eye gear, others claim that this is just aggressive marketing and up-selling. Many medical experts refute the claims. I encourage you to read up more and try to sort it out.

Smartphone Display

That said, why not check-out what’s baked into your own smartphone? There has been a different, but related concern: blue light from phones interferes with the circadian clock, that is adaption between night and day.

On your iphone or ipad filter out blue light by going to the Display and Brightness screen, and then tapping the Night Shift setting. On an Android look in Settings>Display>Blue Light filter.  To further protect, consider getting a special screen protector for your computer and smartphone – it will block light in the 380-500 nanometer range throughout the day (not just night). 

Age Spectrum…Light Spectrum

I have an interesting anecdote to pass on. When I last visited my ophthalmologist in 2019, the clinician told me she was seeing more young children with vision problems. She encourage me, a.k.a. Dear Smartphone,  to tell parents to withhold Ipads and phones from kids.  BTW,  blue light effects are not confined to young people and office workers. It is thought that it might hasten macular degeneration in older folks. Note that for every research study pointing in one direction, there seems to be refutable evidence in the other. But, if you liked the fit and look of your daughter-in-law’s glasses, why not try a second pair?