Limits or liberty? TikTok’s new screen time cap

Students and faculty discuss the ethics of TikTok’s recent limitations


Vick Lukaszuk, Staff Writer

TikTok is no stranger to controversy—amidst concerns of its permissive content policies and alleged security issues, the U.S. has joined a slew of other countries in making efforts to ban the app. Not soon after President Biden banned TikTok from federal devices, the app rolled out a new screen time feature—and its user base is torn.

These features—which were announced on TikTok’s official website March 1—aren’t entirely new; they have a precedent dating as far back as 2019, where developers allowed users to track and limit their use of the app if they so chose. The difference now is that, for certain users, it is now more difficult to opt out. 

Anyone using the app who is under the age of 18 will have a 60-minute limit automatically applied; should they reach this limit, they will be prompted to type a passcode; a measure designed to make users more conscious of their consumption. What’s more, these users will be prompted to set another screen time limit should they attempt to disable the feature and spend over 100 minutes on the app. 

Those under the age of 13 will be unable to change the 60-minute time limit—they can extend it by increments of 30 minutes, but must prompt their parent or guardian to enter a passcode in order to do so. As for those over the age of 18, these limits only apply should the user opt into them. 

There are those who believe these measures are helpful; but perhaps too little, too late. 

“TikTok is a time and energy sink,” said Roswell Howells, a second-year student at Elgin Community College. 

Howells grew up with social media and is  familiar with its addictive nature. Though they have since opted into the screen time limit and find it helpful, they feel that they have a long way to go.

“Social media is a plague,” Howells said, “But I just can’t get off of it.” 

Howells isn’t alone— surveys reveal that the average screen time spent on social media has been steadily climbing; as of 2023, average users can expect to spend around two and a half hours a day on social media alone (not including other screen time; i.e- entertainment). 

Many experts have raised concerns over the addictive potential of apps like TikTok. One psychologist, speaking with NPR, compared the app’s new screen time features to notifying gamblers when they’ve been on too long. The casino comparison is especially apt when one considers that, like a casino, TikTok is designed to keep watchers hooked

That much was revealed in an internal document leaked by The New York Times, which detailed the company’s “ultimate goal” of retaining users by maximizing “time spent” on the app.

There are, too, those who see TikTok’s new screen time measures as unnecessary or even stifling. 

“I do see the benefits of [limiting screen time],” said second-year ECC student Steve Granderson, “But I do feel like it goes against [user’s] liberties and what they choose to do with their time.”

Historically, liberty is a concept that America has struggled to grapple with—especially where children are concerned. In one infamous 2012 case, New York City officials proposed a cap to the size of sugary drinks that could be sold. The measure, which was intended to curb rates of childhood obesity, was met with considerable backlash, and many called the proposals bureaucratic and paternalistic. 

This ethical dissonance is especially clear when one compares TikTok to its Chinese counterpart, Douyin. There, children under 14 years of age are limited to just 40 minutes of screen time a day—it cannot be extended, and children can only use the app during the daytime, with access shutting off between 10pm and 6am. 

The features of this Youth Mode (as it’s called by developers) go beyond literal screen time limits—the app implements a five-second delay between videos that discourages endless scrolling; it also prioritizes educational and aspirational content, a feature that its American counterpart is just now adopting (albeit in its own, separate feed). 

This begs the question: why do Americans value liberty so much, even at the expense of the greater good? 

Peter Han, a professor of Philosophy at ECC, seeks to answer questions like these in his courses. 

“Cynically, it may be that American business leaders and politicians are more interested in financial profit than the wellbeing of its young citizens,” Han said. 

Such observations track with the history of corporate lobbying in America. When corporations can shift the views of lawmakers in their favor, it makes sense that they could do the same for average citizens. 

When the aforementioned sugary drinks portion cap in New York was proposed, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola launched aggressive PR campaigns which framed the policies as an attack on consumer’s rights, which shifted the rhetoric of the discourse away from health concerns and incensed citizens into opposition. 

With their influence, what was proposed as a “sugary drinks portion cap” came to be known as the comparatively extreme “soda ban.” Furthermore, the NAACP—whom Coca-Cola sponsored at the time—claimed that the portion cap would disproportionately affect low-income people of color

This isn’t to say that laymen are incapable of critical thought—opposition to the portion cap policy existed before large corporations had their say on the matter, and would have existed regardless. However, it is undeniable that corporations have some sort of influence over public discourse and, by extension, how individuals engage with it.

What’s more, with the historic trend of corporations framing regulations as an issue of consumer rights,  some consumers internalize this sort of rhetoric, viewing restrictions on their consumption as restrictions of their freedom. 

“Perhaps, when it comes down to it, Americans are freedom maximalists,” Han said. “Citizens of a free society are free to self-destruct.” 

However, in an age where the deleterious effects of social media on developing minds are just beginning to take form, some wonder if that same freedom should extend to children. Madison Brusven, a second-year student at ECC, has some doubts.

“Kids don’t have the tools to be able to use social media in a way that could be beneficial towards them,” Brusven said. “They shouldn’t be expected to know how to manage their time.”

Brusven’s philosophy is borne out of personal experience—growing up, their parents set screen time limits on their devices. Though they felt ambivalent about the restrictions, they nevertheless saw them as beneficial.

“I liked being aware of [my screen time],” Brusven said. “But I hated the fact that my parents decided for me. I hated that it was out of my control.”

Is that it then? Should children be expected to tolerate restricted freedoms for their own sake? And, if so, how far can that line of thought go? Should social media platforms, for instance, implement ID verification to prevent underaged users from making accounts?  

It should be noted that for many children, social media can be a means of connecting with others where they otherwise could not. Anecdotally speaking, this fact holds especially true for those of marginalized identities. Limiting their access, then, may cut them off from communities that are vital to their sense of belonging.

Bearing these considerations in mind, there do not appear to be any easy answers regarding the social media issue. Steve Granderson sums up such frustrations best:

“The responsibility falls on social media [platforms], but I wonder if they care,” Granderson said. “They’re more concerned about the money they make off the app.”