The TikTok Dilemma: Protecting Young Minds or Silencing Creative Sparks? (GP Topics: Media, Society)

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TikTok, the immensely popular social media platform known for its short-form videos and creative content, has become a cultural phenomenon, captivating millions of users worldwide. However, amidst its rise to fame, concerns have emerged regarding the platform’s impact on children. As such, understanding the advantages and disadvantages of such a ban is crucial in navigating the complex landscape of digital safety and the impact of social media on young minds.

The prevalence of social media among kids is alarming. Pew Research reveals that two-thirds of U.S. teenagers use TikTok, ranking it second only to YouTube in terms of constant usage. Despite age restrictions, children as young as four access these platforms, often bypassing these restrictions. The average person under 18 spends over 90 minutes a day on TikTok, with recent time limits serving as mere “speed bumps” rather than effective deterrents. While social media can offer positive benefits such as connecting isolated youngsters and fostering marginalized communities, numerous experts caution against its harmful practices. The pervasive collection of personal data for targeted marketing and the psychologically manipulative quest for attention have far-reaching consequences. Indeed, the National Institutes of Health warns of increased mental distress, self-injurious behavior, and suicidality among youth linked to smartphone and social media use, with girls being particularly vulnerable. Yet, despite the growing evidence of the negative impact of social media addiction on mental health, it has not been recognized as a formal mental health disorder in diagnostic manuals like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and the International Classification of Diseases (ICD). This lack of formal recognition may hinder consistent terminology, diagnostic tools, and treatment recommendations, perpetuating the negative impact on social media on youths.

Furthermore, adolescent brains are highly sensitive to social cues and rewards, making pre-teens between 10 and 12 particularly susceptible to the need for attention and admiration from others. The constant comparison with peers on social media platforms can negatively impact their self-esteem and emotional well-being. Being constantly exposed to curated images on social media can create a distorted sense of reality, leading to dissatisfaction with one’s own life and fostering a culture of comparison. This negative self-perception can become deeply ingrained, affecting their emotional well-being and mental health in the long run. When young individuals become dependent on social media for validation, entertainment, or emotional relief, they may develop a maladaptive coping mechanism. This, in turn, can lead to seeking solace in other harmful substances or activities, such as alcohol, drugs, pornography, or gambling. These addictive behaviors can deeply impact their lives, hindering personal growth, academic achievement, and social relationships.

TikTok’s algorithmic recommendations and open access to content pose risks, as children may encounter inappropriate or potentially harmful material. A ban would provide a protective barrier, shielding young users from content that may negatively influence their development. Several case studies have highlighted the presence of explicit or violent content on TikTok, which could be detrimental to children’s mental health and well-being. For instance, the presence of suicide-related content easily accessible to children on the platform resulted in hashtags associated with such content accumulating more than 1.43 million posts and garnering a staggering 8.8 billion views. 

Furthermore, privacy issues have plagued TikTok, with concerns about data collection, usage, and security rampant in countries like the US. In particular, the US government has been worried that Chinese law could mandate the surrender of private user data, including sensitive intelligence or national security information. Lawmakers fear that ByteDance could manipulate TikTok’s algorithm to disseminate propaganda videos or misinformation that aligns with China’s foreign policy goals. In 2019, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fined TikTok $5.7 million for violating children’s privacy rights by collecting their personal information without parental consent. Such incidents highlight the need for stricter measures to safeguard children’s privacy, which a ban could help achieve.

Another argument that proponents of the ban frequently raise is the short attention span and excessive screen time that platforms like TikTok cause. This is especially so given that each video lasts seconds, making youths more accustomed to short clips while longer and more informative videos fail to maintain their attention. Banning TikTok could encourage children to engage in more varied activities, fostering healthier habits and reducing the potential for addictive behavior. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that excessive screen time, particularly on social media platforms like TikTok, was associated with increased risks of mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, in adolescents. Indeed, a lot of research corroborates that excessive screen time impairs brain functions and development. Restricting access to TikTok would allow children to explore alternative offline activities and develop a more balanced lifestyle.

Yet, there are those who believe that TikTok provides a platform for users to showcase their creativity and express themselves. A ban could potentially limit our youth’s ability to explore their artistic talents and connect with others who share their interests, potentially stifling their personal growth and development. From dance covers to makeup videos, young creators are discovering and nurturing their passions through the platform. 

It is also crucial to acknowledge that in a digitally connected world, banning TikTok for kids could isolate them from current trends, online communities, and popular culture. This knowledge gap might hinder their ability to navigate an increasingly digital society and potentially impact their social interactions. TikTok has become a cultural phenomenon, shaping trends, and influencing popular culture. By participating in such platforms, children can stay connected with their peers, gain exposure to diverse perspectives, and develop their digital literacy skills.

As such, instead of an outright ban, promoting parental involvement, implementing stronger content moderation, and introducing comprehensive digital literacy programs might be more effective solutions. By empowering parents, promoting responsible digital citizenship, and improving platform safeguards, we can create a safer and more positive TikTok experience for kids without entirely banning their access.

For A Level GP Paper 1 and Paper 2 AQ, students need to understand the ever-changing nature of technology and stay up-to-date on the current sentiments in the media. It is also crucial to cultivate personal opinions on such matters, especially since platforms like TikTok are commonly used among teenagers today. As we scroll through these social media applications, let us also be more discerning of the possible criticisms and dangers of the content presented. Let us also be positive influencers to the younger and more vulnerable ones amongst us.

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