The Emotional Lives of Teenagers

The Emotional Lives of Teenagers

Lisa's latest New York Times best seller is an urgently needed guide to help parents understand their teenagers’ intense and often fraught emotional lives—and how to support them through this critical developmental stage.

Under Pressure

Under Pressure

Lisa’s second New York Times best seller is a celebrated, urgently needed guide to addressing the alarming increase in anxiety and stress in girls from elementary school through college.

Untangled

Untangled

Lisa’s award-winning New York Times best seller–now available in nineteen languages–is a sane, informed, and engaging guide for parents of teenage girls.

Episode 130

Encore: Should I Kick my Kid Off TikTok?

When should parents limit - or even forbid - the use of TikTok? Dr. Lisa and Reena take a deep dive into the upsides and downsides of social media and how the norms kids encounter in online environments can influence real-world behavior. The conversation sheds light on the algorithms that drive social media, what parents need to be on the lookout for, when it's time to worry, and what parents should do.

August 8, 2023 | 27 min

Transcript | Encore: Should I Kick my Kid Off TikTok?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 130: Encore: Should I Kick My Kid Off TikTok?

The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

The following transcript has been automatically generated by an AI system and should be used for informational purposes only. We cannot guarantee the accuracy, completeness, or timeliness of the information provided.

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Reena Ninan
I need to be doing more with TikTok, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Why?

Lisa Damour
Maybe that Reena? Because I’m 52. I just cannot. I am like Reena, like I love what we do on Insta and other platforms. But I don’t know for me TikTok feels like a bridge too far.

Reena Ninan
But I will tell you as a content creator and a journalist I know that is where younger generation is living. I mean, that is what the equivalent of television was for us growing up. It feels like what TikTok is today.

Lisa Damour
Absolutely. But it’s a lot. You know, we

Reena Ninan
get a lot of letters about technology and gaming and social media. And this one was about TikTok. We thought we’d take this up today. It says Dear Dr. Lisa, Karina, I’d love to hear Lisa’s advice on how to handle tween young teens, and TikTok, it’s hard to get them off it. And from what I can see. It’s basically random videos, which are mostly pretty useless. In my humble opinion. I find kids watching this for extended periods of time laughing at videos that I honestly don’t even find funny. Any advice on how to manage this? Thanks so much in advance. So Lisa, are you seeing this in your practice is this TikTok suffocation of teenage life? Really a problem? Yeah, they

Lisa Damour
love it. Right. And like what this parent describes, like, I really resonated to a lot of it like one that they can spend hours on it. The other and I don’t know if you’ve had this experience Reena, like, I don’t get what’s funny, like, I like I like funny things. And I even like, I like adolescent humor a lot. You’ve got great, but I have like when my kids will show me stuff. Or I had a colleague who’s she’s like, my son grew up on TikTok, and she showed me and I said to her, I don’t get it. She’s like, I don’t get it either. Like, it’s a different discourse around comedy. It’s a different understanding of funny, like, have you had that experience of like, you’re like, I don’t I don’t see it. I

Reena Ninan
just don’t get why people are so into it, like, fascinate, like, fascinated by it. And then you realize how you’ve lost all this time, right? I mean, do you think videos are really useless?

Lisa Damour
Well, it’s actually very, there’s a lot of ways you could take that. Okay, so I’ll give you the answer. Were saying no. Okay. They’re not useless. So even though I don’t get it, and I think I just want to rest for a minute on the not getting it. I really try as much as anything to be anthropological about kids, as opposed to judgment. Psychology, you know, true, cranky about it. So true about that. Yep. Well, I do like just to observe and so I am always interested in those things where I’m like, I don’t get it right. And so I don’t get often, like, this writer doesn’t really get like, why these kids find this stuff. So engaging, but I try not to go to it and a critical place of like, well is dumb. And so then, you know, they shouldn’t do it. Like I try to stay away just like okay, there’s a lot I don’t understand. So I just want to leave that there. But in terms of is there value, right? Is there value even in this like random weird stuff that doesn’t seem funny to us? There can be value, because distraction, and being distracted by things that are enthralling and harmless, can actually help us get through our day, right, that we’re using distraction all the time when we’re frustrated, like I’ll go internet shopping when I’m frustrated, and then I’ll go back to my work. So, I wouldn’t say they’re useless if a kid that like has like the worst day ever is completely grumpy has a bunch of homework to do. And the kids like, Alright, give me 20 minutes to just look at like mindless. Garbage? Yeah, if they can then turn around and do their homework like it was useful. So I’m not going to say it’s entirely useless.

Reena Ninan
When is it a problem? When should apparently worried?

Lisa Damour
Okay, so there’s two levels of which parents should be worried about TikTok or really any social media or really any digital environment. So what is just time consumption, like, it’s what you’re describing, right? So if the kids like none, and I’ve had the worst day ever, I need like, 10 minutes on TikTok. And then, you know, three hours later, you know, they haven’t done any of the work, they they’ve also had been sitting on their Duff for three hours when they could have been out being active. Like, that’s a problem, like, we don’t want digital technology in any form to interfere with the things that we’re supposed to be doing. So that’s one version of a problem. The other version of a problem has to do with what the kids looking at, in those environments. And really, you said something about, you know, kids will start. And they’ll just like, keep watching, keep watching, keep watching, keep watching. And what you’re describing there, which really deserves to be fully laid out, is you’re describing the algorithms at work. So, you know, and I know, but I don’t think I really appreciated this until more recently, that when any of us engage with digital technology, and especially social media platforms of any kind, huge amounts of data are being recorded as we do that, right. Like, way more than I think we appreciate. So these platforms are picking up, you know, what we look at what we click on what we actually spend time, like, if we just hover over it for a while, what we like what we send to people, and then of course, things like what we searched for. And so these data platforms, these social media platforms are constantly using us as lab rats in an experiment of like, how long do you watch? If I show you this? How long do you watch? If I show you that? How long do you know, and I can see it in my own Instagram feed. Like, you know, when I’ve, I love watching dance videos. And so suddenly, the Instagram algorithm has figured out, I will spend time on those. Now I’m getting tons and tons of them. And so that experience you describe of like kids sort of like getting pulled in and staying much longer. That’s the kid. That is the algorithm working exactly as it should, which is you like this, you’re gonna really like that. And if you really like that, we’re going to show you this thing that you’re gonna really like. So the algorithms are doing that, and kids need to know, and we’ve talked about that, like, we need to explain to kids that this is how this works.

Reena Ninan
And you said in an earlier podcast, when we talked about vaping, that one of the things that really gets through to teens is explaining how they are being manipulated. And in this instance, by talking about the algorithm sort of explains to them why this can get to be addictive, because they’re figuring out what it is you spend time on.

Lisa Damour
Absolutely, absolutely. And I would not pull my punches on this. I mean, I would really be clear and people, the the documentary, the social dilemma, does a really good job of showing this in a documentary form about how these data are collected, and how it shapes the experience we have. And that the entire end game for this whole game is for these platforms to make as much money as possible off of advertising, by keeping us attentive and then shaping the advertising that’s presented to us so that we will buy things, the more you can explain that to kids, it doesn’t mean that they’re going to be like, then throw away my phone. I never want to look at social media but you want them to know that this is how this operates.

Reena Ninan
We’re talking about TikTok and apparent rights and concerned that their child might be on it a little bit too much. You know, it’s interesting when this parent talks about TikTok, I can’t get over the fact that a lot of parents feel this way. It’s like, why are they watching all this content, it’s not even funny, but they’re mesmerized. You know, it reminds me of like the toddler phases when they watch like the kitty videos on television, you’re like, again, we’re gonna listen to that Baby Shark Song again.

Lisa Damour
I know it’s really enthralling. And, you know, it’s designed to be that way. But the other thing that’s going on is there’s also a pure transaction and this right that kids are watching with their friends, or they’re talking with their friends about what they’re watching, right that. I don’t know that as adults, what we’re consuming on social media is shaping our peer interactions very much, right. I mean, I’m like just looking at a lot of like, dance videos, you know, like, but I’m not talking about it with my friends, right? Like, that’s just sort of my own private experience. Whereas for kids, there’s a lot more of shared and transactional and imitating and knowing and you know, working in a shared environment around what they are looking at online. So that can be very compelling that the algorithm is one form of kind of magnetic attraction to this. But then also wanting to be watching what all one’s friends are watching. And share in that experience is another form of magnetic attraction that kids have to this.

Reena Ninan
That’s so interesting, because it’s not just consuming the video, like I’m getting a lot of home organization on Instagram and salads and a jar. And I love it and when it consumes, you know, but I’m not really necessarily talking to my friends about it, but you’re saying there’s a social component to this, because I assume people watch the video and then talk about it. Yeah.

Lisa Damour
Are they you know, doing the dances at recess? Or, you know, I mean, those kinds of things. And, and I think that sometimes kids will make the argument like this is why I need TikTok is that I am feeling isolated socially, because everybody’s aware of things that I am not aware of, and that I feel like I’m kind of in the dark about it. And, you know, I am not convinced that’s a great reason to give your kid TikTok, I think you can give your kid a lot of social support through a phone that can text you know, before you give them TikTok. But that’s a pretty powerful component. But I mean, just to kind of keep playing this out about where things can really go wrong, like really wrong. So you’re getting salads in a jar and home organization–

Reena Ninan
Home organization, organizing your fridge in your pantry in your closets…

Lisa Damour
Because clearly you have spent time looking at things like that. Yeah, exactly. Priorities. I’m getting adorable kids dancing quite a bit. Because I seem to really like watching adorable kids dancing, so I’m getting a lot of videos along those lines. What kids use as a language to describe this is they talk about the different sides of platforms that you can end up on in Tik Tok. Especially, they’ll say like, oh, well there’s different sides of Tik Tok. So, this and what they’re describing is that what the algorithm is currently flooding a particular kids feed with so in this letter, it is very clear to me that her daughter is on the goofy kind of weird humor side of TikTok, right like it’s kind of random and funny but not funny to adults, but that’s the side she’s on. There’s also the gamebooks side of TikTok there is also the sports side of TikTok right as far as highlighted one sided TikToks right. There are also really dark sides of TikTok. There is the white supremacy side of TikTok right there is the how to lose a whole lot of weight really fast. lost sight of Tik Tok.

Reena Ninan
And the hard thing is, I don’t know that they are watching this right? Like, even with Snapchat like it happens. And I can’t go back and necessarily see what did they look at all day to day, right?

Lisa Damour
I don’t think you can. But what you can do for TikTok is you go to the kids for you page. And that is really like that will tell you what side of tic tac they’re on because to talk is easier for you. So what parents should feel comfortable doing is knowing they want parents to know, especially with younger teenagers, what’s on your kids for you page, because if your kid is on the goofy dance side of Tik Tok, you can probably rest easy at night, right? Like Sports Clips or Sports Clips or whatever. If your kids on the white supremacy side of TikTok like you need to know that right? So that that’s really important. And and another thing, I sort of gestured at this, or I brought it up in a parenting to go about video games and how much is too much. But the thing I think about now all the time in raising kids, is the question of the norms in the environments where they are hanging out. Yes. Right, that that like norm shaped behavior? Totally.

Reena Ninan
Yeah. So when you’re saying norms, like the fact that what is their environment day in and day out? And what does that sort of validate day in and day out?

Lisa Damour
Absolutely a norm shaped behavior, like we know that. So the way we saw this go so horribly wrong in the pandemic, was kids had a ton of time on their hands, they were looking at a lot of social media. And so then kids, especially some kids who were hard driving and anxious, but it could be any variety of kids decided they would get in shape, right, they would use the pandemic to like transform their bodies. And so they started searching on TikTok, and also other platforms for fitness, weight, loss, whatever. And what we saw was their feeds became flooded with diet, diet culture, before and after photos. Okay, so those are scary enough, then you think, Okay, now the kid is spending four and five hours a day looking at these things, becoming extremely thin, has now become totally normed. They are looking at skinny or ultra fit bodies all day, this is not something that’s happening over there. That is part of a broader view of, you know, 100 kids who have like bodies that are of all shapes and sizes, their understanding of what bodies look like are supposed to look like, is now being distorted into a norm driven by an algorithm that has not got your kids best interests at heart. Yeah. So that’s what we want to watch.

Reena Ninan
That’s something that’s like a red flag to you, that you absolutely need to keep in mind.

Lisa Damour
It’s a huge red flag. And so what I would say, as parents are evaluating the question of like, screen time, social media, right, which are the questions that we are constantly evaluating as parents. I don’t know that the idea of screen time is a particularly helpful one because like screens can deliver everything right. Like I do all my work on screens, and then we watch fun documentaries on screens, I would have among the ways that parents are evaluating. There kids use of technology, one should be is getting in the way of other aspects of their life. But then right next to that should be what are the norms in the digital environments where my kid is hanging out? Like, that’s the answer I want parents to have at their fingertips.

Reena Ninan
So with that in mind, Lisa, when should you really be worried as a parent?

Lisa Damour
I think you should really be worried as a parent, I don’t know, I don’t traffic and worry that often, if your kid is hanging out in digital environments, where you’re like, we do not agree with those norms, or those norms are destructive. So can you give me an example. So give you an example. So obviously, if your kid is spending time in on the dark side of TikTok, and that is, you know, and like kids can spend time time, right, so then that becomes a norm that will start to shape the kid’s behavior, no question. Another example, if we go back to video games, right? There’s video games and video games, right? So there are mostly boys, who are playing tons and tons of NBA All Star video games with their friends, where they are like goofing around having a good time. It’s playful, it’s competitive. They’re funny. They’re spending a lot of time on it. But the norm in that environment, the parent may be like, that’s fine. Like that fits beautifully with like, that’s just how we roll. Like, we’re good with that. There are also kids who are playing hours and hours of video games, where they’re like, and discord can be a platform where this happens with a norm in that environment is like kids are dropping the N word every five word I see. And so to speak, comes in your kid isn’t spending hours there. Right Um, that type of behavior around that type of behavior. And so that is becoming normed. And so I think that what we don’t what I haven’t seen a satisfying exploration of, and maybe this podcast episode is the beginning, is the way in which the norms that kids can pick up in a digital environment can then seep into their daily life shape, eating disordered behavior, shape, their view of marginalized communities shape, you know, any variety of things. That’s where I get the most anxious about digital technology and social media, separate from the question of like, it gets in the way of kids sleep, and they should be doing other stuff. But it’s that norming. And, and I think we, if you spend a lot of time somewhere, those become the norms.

Reena Ninan
That is so interesting. And that puts it into perspective about when you really shouldn’t be worried when it changes that sort of dynamic because they think that’s this is normal. This is what normal behavior looks like and what I should be doing. Absolutely. Let’s say if you’re a parent, and you are worried, what should you do?

Lisa Damour
So, I think we want to hit this from two sides, you know, so first of all, as a general rule, let me your kids ability to spend hours and hours in any digital environment, like I just think like, it doesn’t matter if they’re doing like, Yay, fun, happy fun stuff, looking Sports Clips, whatever. Like at some level, kids just need a lot more variety. So you want to just clamp this down just from how many? How many hours can they spend in any digital environment, where they’re exposed to norms and that environment. And then second, I would be very, very hawkish, very aware of the norms where my kid is hanging out, and keep a close eye on them. And I would talk with kids about it, I would talk very clearly with him and say, Look, I’m not saying you can’t have social media, I am saying, if you’re going to spend this kind of time on it, I need to know the norms in that environment, because our values matter. And we need to know we’re not going to put you in any environment where the values are totally different from our values. That includes whatever you’re doing on that little screen that you hold in your hand. Like that’s an environment where you’re spending time. And if the values on there are offensive to us, or antithetical to how we operate as a family, we’re gonna have an issue with that, because you’re spending time there.

Reena Ninan
That’s great advice. And what do you find really works when you talk to your kid about this, and you’re worried that gets them to kind of understand, okay, this might be a problem for me, because often they don’t feel they just feel like it’s their parents being unreasonable.

Lisa Damour
I think that’s really true. I think this is a really good moment, where we remember that all kids have two sides. They have the don’t get between me and my TikTok side. And they have the broad minded, growth oriented, philosophical, wise and decent side. And the side that you speak to is the side that shows up for the conversation. So you can say to them, alright, we are good with you watching goofy dance videos on TikTok. Because we get it that you need a happy distraction, it seems harmless does allow us to be clear, that TikTok is designed to see where else they can get you to go. And what rabbit holes it can pull you down. And if you find that you are being exposed to content that you know does not fit with our family values, and you can lay it out right it is racist or sexist says hello, I mean, you’re homophobic like it, you can just say like, these are the things we do not believe. Let us know, we want to know how that happened. And more than anything, we don’t want you spending time around that content. Because the more time you spend around it, the less alarming it will become to you. And that’s a problem.

Reena Ninan
I love having these conversations with you because you’re not anti technology. And you know, TikTok is taken over YouTube, in some instances, you know, I just don’t think this is going away. But what is at least ultimately, based on these years of practice and dealing with technology, what do you think parents kind of don’t understand about TikTok that. Maybe if a team were here today talk to us about it, that they’d like to get through to their parents.

Lisa Damour
Let’s imagine a junior girl because here’s the thing, in my experience, Junior girls, because those are the ones I have most access to. But I know there’s a lot of junior boys like this. They are like the truth speakers of all time. Like they see everything they know everything and they will still deign to explain it to adults and what I love about senior girls senior girls are like, yeah, not my problem. Like you guys need to figure this out for yourself but Junior girls will still work with you. And when I have talked to junior girls about TikTok what they will say is it’s not us need to be worrying about it’s the seventh graders Yeah, we’re like someone needs to keep an eye on those seventh graders. And they like, and they’re there, right, which is the seventh graders can be very naive about what they’re being shown and why they’re being shown it and seventh graders can very easily be pulled down dangerous, scary rabbit holes, whereas the juniors, and I will assume that they’re in the retinas, they’re like, We understand how TikTok works and what side you want to be on. And we keep ourselves on the sides that we have the things we want to see. But it’s the younger kids who are so excited to have it and more vulnerable to really the wild west that is available there. And so what I would say is, like, be very cautious as you give these algorithm driven environments to your younger kids, because they are incredibly vulnerable to these giant machines that are just trying to figure out what it’s going to get to get take to get your kid to keep paying attention.

Reena Ninan
Such a great point, I wouldn’t have thought about seventh grade. But that warning from the 11th graders kind of on point, isn’t it? Yeah,

Lisa Damour
no, the 11th graders usually are kind of have things better, right.

Reena Ninan
Wow. Well, this has been really fascinating to sort of learn from your perspective about, you know, when you should worry, and what’s important when your kids are obsessed with TikTok, Lisa, what do you have for us for parenting to go?

Lisa Damour
Green, I’m thinking about our conversation about the ways in which the algorithms are currently shaping our respective Instagram experiences. And I think when adults need to talk with kids about social media, if the adult has their own data to work with of like, look, I looked at this one kid, you know, cute kid dance video three weeks ago, and now look what’s happened to my feed? That can be a way to get an opening to talk about how these algorithms work. So I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t feel ashamed of it. I wouldn’t, you know, hesitate to say like, look, this happens to everybody. It’s not like this is how kids experience these things. It’s how we all do. And we all need to be really, really mindful of what it means. All right.

Reena Ninan
And next week, we said we’re going to talk a little bit about your college bound teen who is ruining the nest, you’ve built a great nest and all of a sudden this team is ruining it all. I’ll see you next week.

Lisa Damour
I’ll see you next week.

The advice provided by Dr. Damour here will not and does not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

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