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.

Home Schooling and Provisional Phones

All parents need to home-school when it comes to smartphones and tweens!

A mock-up of a 'certificate of completion' or diploma for parents who homeschooled through the pandemic.
Home schooling for parents is never done when it comes to provisional phones and tween learning.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I am thinking of home schooling my daughter this Fall and wonder if home schooled kids need phones. She is entering eighth grade. I feel constant pressure from her and other parents to get a smartphone. If we home school for a year or two I can postpone the decision and she will be older. And, it will keep me from having to deal with the other parents and tweens who have smartphones.  Libby, Oakland

Dear Libby: Not all parents will choose home schooling, but I think that all parents must home school when it comes to phones.  You are certainly hopping on a trend. Many parents, particularly in California, are deliberating whether to return to the in-person classroom this Fall. The pluses are that the home schooling curriculum can be customized to the student, the classroom can be anywhere, and parents have more control. This includes control over digital devices. 

That said, I hope you have reasons beyond the smartphone for wanting to home school this Fall. Most curriculums are now online and the materials will be digital: podcasts, videos, drills, exams, and so forth.  Homeschooling might actually increase your daughter’s screen time albeit, on a laptop computer or iPad. 

The Provisional Phone:

You sound like a thoughtful parent, so you might consider using the new school year to get your daughter up and running with a provisional phone. In previous posts, I have referred to the provisional phone as the starter-kit. You could use a device with gray scale or fewer features, but that does not obviate the need to school at home, when it comes to digital education.

There’s an analogy from the transportation field. Parents don’t hand over the keys to the family car when their child on their fifteenth birtday. Instead, the parent and child embark on a series of steps. First, there is classroom (or video) training with those scary crash pictures. Next comes driving with a parent or instructor, then a written test with road rules, and finally, a road test with the DMV.  For at least six months to a year, future drivers operate with a learner’s permit. 

Rather than shield your daughter from the responsibilities of using a phone, you could use the school year to introduce it “provisionally.” At home you will provide the instruction and training, but the in-person classroom will provide the challenges and real-world context.

Context Counts when Learning:

Here is where context counts: at the in-person school, tweens will encounter peers that use text and social media to mock and bully. The lesson: stay clear of them, and do not return like with like. Then there is instruction on encountering porn and salacious content. For daughters, there is an instructional module on female body image and understanding how these pictures are often altered. These lessons, and more, become salient when your tween navigates them with peers.

I would wish for you, and all parents with young students, that this first phone, the provisional phone, opens up family discussions. The true learning must begin at home, even when kids take the phones to the physical school.  I would also wish, perhaps demand, that my school librarian and teachers offer a class in digital literacy for phone beginners. Sometimes the postings I see on Instagram from teachers suggest a laissez-fair attitude that I do not agree with, and earlier this summer, parents wrote about conflicts when pod teachers allowed students to use their phones during breaks.

Home Schooling No Matter What!

If keeping the phone out of your daughter’s hands for a few more years is the primary reason you are pursuing the home schooling path, then I think you should be more upfront.  Realize that this constant struggle with digital media will be with you as a parent, no matter which route you choose. And, whether you choose to home school or go back to the in-person classroom, the one curriculum you need to teach from home will be about the provisional phone.

Venmo and Bitcoin for Teen?

A teen loses money on Bitcoin Cash. His parents set up the account…

A smartphone screen from Venmo that displays chart of  Bitcoin investment.
Venmo Cryptocurrency . Image: Slashgear

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My parents set up a Venmo account for me ( a teen) so that I could buy and sell baseball cards more easily. I did that for a while but then Venmo flashed me an opportunity. I found that I was more interested in buying and selling Bitcoin Cash. So, I started buying Bitcoin Cash on their site and that worked for a while and then it didn’t. I lost a significant amount of money. How do I tell my parents about Venmo and Bitcoin? Finn, Boston

Dear Finn: There are three critical pieces of information missing from your inquiry-  first, your age, second how you replenish the Venmo balance , and third the dollar loss. I am guessing you are under 18, that is why your parents set up the Venmo account for you. Is the dollar amount- say more than $300?  But, don’t beat yourself up. From time immemorial, people have waged, gained, and lost on horses, stocks, slot machines, sports and lotteries. Here is my previous take on online investments.

Parents, who are not familiar with Venmo, should note that this platform began offering active users the ability to buy and sell cryptocurrency in April. The initial investment, which can be as low as $1.00, will rise and fall in value, just like a stock. There is a service fee, and you can’t transfer “coins” to another user, but you cash out the balance to a designated bank account. 

The Apology

You have to level with your parents, but they may know what’s going on since they set up the initial account, possibly with email notifications. Here’s some advice to get you going. First, explain to them that you have this entrepreneurial streak- that’s why you started trading baseball cards. You view crypto as the next big thing and want to dip your toes in the water…. If you say this you will be in sync with some of the big brokerage firms and analysts.

Also hint that you are interested in digital currencies because you see it as a generational sea change. Cyroptocurrency is the currency of your generation, the currency of the future.  Blockchain, the record keeping behind Bitcoin Cash will be embraced, then regulated by national treasuries. This might be a stretch, but weren’t you doing homework for a history assignment on El Salvador now that it has adopted bitcoin as its national currency?

Hopefully your parents will chalk your financial losses to growing up. It may be their trust that you have most forfeited. Be prepared to repay them the starting balance on your Venmo account. You can earn this money back on weekends or after school.  And, hopefully, fingers crossed, they will see a bright spot  should they need to offset some short term gains with a short term loss; they could be getting a statement from the IRS if you sold the cryptocurrency. 

Crash, Burn, Recover

What you are describing may happen frequently now that kids have phones and access to brokerage accounts. From the nineteen fifties onward kids crashed their parent’s cars- in the 2020s, kids also crash and burn on the Internet.  So, move on and don’t lose your curiosity and passion. However, I do want to close by mentioning the difference between using digital currency versus paper money. 

Our Federal Reserve banks have been tracking for some time that purchases with credit cards and electronic payments are overtaking cash. However, there is a concomitant trend to spend more and save less. Academic studies find that those using credit cards are less likely to remember how much they spent, take less time deciding what to buy, are more willing to pay high prices and make a greater number of purchases. Some brain research finds that cashless spending activates the same reward centers of the brain that are triggered by cocaine and other addictive drugs!

Could cryptocurrencies, like your Venmo investment, be particularly addicting and dangerous? Physical money is tangible, so when we hand it over to pay for something, we also give up something.  But, cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin Cash lack intrinsic economic value (they are not tied to any asset) and are “frictionless” to buy and sell. Perhaps we all need to reflect on that as we grow up with them.