Our take on TikTok, the Documentary, and Strategies to Empower Teens

If you haven’t had a chance to watch the documentary Tik Tok: The World’s Most Popular App, it’s worth your time. You can’t make effective decisions without good information. This documentary sheds disturbing light on TikTok and teens, in particular. Here’s our take on it. 

Articles have been warning us about the dangers of the Chinese social media TikTok for over the past year. They have expressed concerns about the app being related to an increase in tics, anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. Not only can this app (and other social media use) lead to an increase in mental health issues, but, as this documentary shares, TikTok is simultaneously “harvesting huge amounts of data illegally without the consent of children or their parents.” TikTok and teens are a dangerous combination. The app is leading our youth down a rabbit hole of negative beliefs and addictive behavior by promoting unachievable standards and harmful information. Most of our thoughts are automatic and most of the population doesn’t know that they are formed based on information gleaned outside of us and oftentimes not real or true. TikTok feeds our youth harmful data about “happiness”, eating disorders, and life. Teens are also not present enough to observe real and helpful data from their peers or adults around them to counteract the harmful data. TikTok can be detrimental to one’s growing sense of self and capitalizes on many normal developmental insecurities.

Why is TikTok so much different from other social media platforms?

As this documentary reveals, TikTok has been designed utilizing a ”powerful algorithm that exposes people to misinformation and dangerous content.” Thoughts are largely formed by the data we collect from the world around us. The data our children are collecting from TikTok to form thoughts about themselves, others, and the world is skewed intentionally through this app.  “Research shows this app is more addictive than any other platform and it is designed to keep you coming back from more. It does this by recommending content through one main feed, which is essentially just an endlessly scrolling algorithmic curated feed of videos that refreshes each time you open the app. This design leads people to seek more and more of what they are interested in, regardless of whether it is real or dangerous.

It is beyond frightening knowing that this app has been created to take advantage of vulnerable youth who are desperately trying to find themselves and fit into this world. TikTok creates a false sense of belonging and love, as many users base their self-worth by the number of strangers that follow them. It is impossible to have 5,000 friends, yet this generation believes that these numbers actually mean something! The illusion of being well-liked and famous or successful can drive our youth, particularly those who are vulnerable or at-risk, to cling to a false sense of belonging. Ironically, this online community “meant” to help you connect isolates its users further away from what they actually need—authentic, in-person interactions that foster real relationships, connection, and belonging within communities. 

It is becoming virtually impossible to counteract the data they are being fed with any kernel of truth or simple generational wisdom transmitted through real, genuine interactions with trusted adults and friends. We are losing our kids to their devices. We rarely have opportunities to sit and talk without hiding behind a phone and endlessly scrolling reels and apps.

How do we know that TikTok is so harmful?

The past decade has provided us with an abundance of scientific data to show the mind-brain and brain-body connection. Neuroscience highlights the protective buffering factor that human connection has on the brain, whether in active distress or in sharing joy in the moment. Literally, brains respond positively to supportive human connection. Relationships are crucial to our development and well-being. Although youth often turn to peers for support, they still seek out adult support as well. Much of the support can be achieved nonverbally. Simply sitting with a trusted adult who is calm can provide huge benefits. Through the power of mirror neurons, our brains can actually feel the calm of others’ and want to mirror it. This ability to intuit and experience the emotional current of others helps us regulate and learn to tolerate BIG emotions. This is the basis for co-regulation. The concepts of mirror neurons and co-regulation demonstrate the power of connection and what isolation can do to our physical and mental health. In the documentary, An Australian young lady who dropped out of school to focus on TikTok states that “being away from people is definitely lonely” and describes “crying, having a breakdown, having some really quiet nasty thoughts” and feeling “incredibly lonely, isolated, and overwhelmed.” Our youth are basing their self-worth on how many likes they get from strangers who have no investment in the well-being of their emotional and physical health.

A world full of connections based on likes, shares, and comments is truly the loneliest place to be. 

The app has many loopholes that lack needed policies to protect our privacy and overall well-being. “The Australian strategic policy institute is the first academic investigation into censorship on TikTok concluding that the company actively uses the algorithm to hide political speech it deems controversial.” The app appears to distort looks and reality more than other apps. This is frightening considering how much time our youth and young adults spend gathering information that they view as “real”. This misinformation is being used to form their views about themselves and the world. 

This social media platform appears to attract more individuals than any other app and has been deemed “the most addictive social media platform,” exposing our youth to “dangerous content” in a continuous feedback loop. It is also another means by which racism continues to be transmitted and hateful comments absorbed. Shadow banning, that is, limiting and curating content, shows how TikTok further fuels racism by hiding or muting particular races. This documentary reveals that TikTok even banned the Black Lives Matter movement, although they deny intentionally removing this information.

What’s a Parent to Do To Empower Teens to Make Effective Choices?

Provide information not lectures. 

First and foremost, provide information and express concerns about the consequences that this app can have on their overall well-being and growing sense of self (but not as a lecture!). Documentaries such as this and articles offer great starting points to spark conversation. Get curious, actively listen and be available to have conversations that can lead your child to discover what choices to make. For example, you might say “Hey, here’s what I’ve heard or read…What are your thoughts? What’s your experience with your friends or what you see in school?” You can even ask your tweens and teens to watch this video and discuss it. The goal is to encourage them to gather accurate information and read articles to help them decide if having TikTok is actually worth it!!!  

Avoid lecturing, punishing, or simply pulling the proverbial plug on the app without discussion, as our teens are very technologically savvy and will likely gain access to TikTok (or other apps) whether you approve of it or not. We’re not saying don’t set limits but have a conversation about the limits. Our job as parents and caregivers is to educate and help our youth find balance and teach them how to become good consumers of social media. 

Encourage Using Technology with Intention

Encourage your teen to monitor their own time on TikTok and Social Media – even if they don’t tell you what it is. This puts the power in their hands to have information and make more informed decisions. Similarly, encourage your teen to consider how they feel after watching TIkTok or other social media. Was it really an escape? Do they really feel better? 

Do Experiments. Identify making a change that you or your teen might be willing to test out to see if it makes a difference. Examples of experiments include limiting the amount of overall time, limiting time on technology in one sitting, putting the phone on do not disturb for certain amounts of time, or taking a break from TikTok or other apps. During the experiment, the teen checks in with themselves to see how they are feeling. You can suggest setting a time to discuss the “results” and explore making changes. It’s ideal if your child can come to the conclusion and make changes on their own, when possible.

Model Being an Effective Consumer of Technology

The fact is that actions do speak louder than words. If you want your child to limit time on their phone and technology or set limits, then monitoring your own habits and making changes is a great way to start. You can do your own experiments related to monitoring your time, how you feel, and how technology might interfere with activities. For example, I noticed I was reading less when I was scrolling more. I sleep better when I charge my phone out of my bedroom. It is true that you don’t need to use your phone as an alarm clock! Model the changes you want to see!

Be Aware and Be Present

The world is clearly not the same one that we grew up in. We also need to educate ourselves on how the world has changed, what our youth are interested in, and how they are spending their time. Do we really want social media to raise our children and based their self-worth on data that we don’t know what and why they are collecting? If the answer is no, continue to seek out information about how these apps are formed and being used. Look for evidence of the positive influences of social media and technology too. Those are also great ways to spark conversations and discover alternatives. As you are asking these questions and gathering information, be ready to really listen before responding. See our article: Six ways to show your teenager that you’re listening and you get it

Become an Advocate

Write to congress, talk to schools, and most importantly talk to your children and teens. Speak up and let your voice and teens’ voices be heard. This generation does not want to be controlled. They want choice. They are also passionate about advocating against injustice and problems they view as impacting them. 

Be Patient

Remember to be patient. Conversations and sharing information are more effective when they are brief. Brief conversations give time for everyone to process information. These types of conversations are also what “plant seeds” as behavior change is not typically something that occurs immediately but happens over time. Having information, providing guidance, and keeping the lines of communication open fosters healthy development and decision-making. Both of those are key to navigating this challenging thing we call life.

Additional Reading on TikTok, Social Media, and Teens

Taking a One-Week Break from Social Media Improves Well-Being, Depression, and Anxiety: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Jeffrey Lambert, George Barnstable, Eleanor Minter, Jemima Cooper, and Desmond McEwan, Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 2022 25:5, 287-293.

Jargon, J. (2021,October 19). Teen Girls Are Developing Tics. Doctors Say TikTok Could Be a Factor. Wall Street Journal

Jargon, J. (2022, April 2). TikTok Brain Explained: Why Some Kids Seem Hooked on Social Video Feeds. Wall Street Journal.

Written by Carron Montgomery, RPT and Caroline Danda, PhD, The Invisible Riptide