The TikTok Challenge: Curbing Social Media’s Influence On Young Minds
Each generation faces its challenges and struggles to adapt to a rapidly changing technological world. In the 1980s, computers transformed how society worked, communicated, and accessed information. In the 1990s the Internet ushered in an era of global connectivity and e-commerce. Today, social media shapes and redefines our politics, culture, and norms at a dizzying pace, particularly for young people.
Take TikTok, the video-centric social networking app that didn’t exist just five years ago. Currently, it boasts more than 1 billion users, and in 2021 it surpassed Google as the most popular global website. It is the app of choice for teens and young adults, with an estimated 38 percent of U.S. teens saying it’s their favorite social media platform. Indeed, a third of TikTok’s American users are minors. And these teens are using TikTok in ways that go beyond sharing memes and watching choreographed dance videos. The Wall Street Journal has called TikTok the “new Google” as young people use it to seek information on everything from fashion trends to financial advice.
The hours teens spend on social networks like TikTok profoundly impact their understanding of the world. This is especially true for those with little guidance from the adults in their lives. And the amount of time young people spend on TikTok and other social media apps is staggering: According to a 2021 survey, teenagers spend an average of nearly two and a half hours a day scrolling their social networks. The hours spent passively consuming dubious content may erode young people’s ability to accurately judge and assess the information they encounter, both on- and offline.
Is astrology a science? Is numerology legitimate? Is the Earth flat? The answer to all these questions is “no.” But young people glued to their social media had a hard time answering when the Reboot Foundation surveyed them in March 2023. Nearly 40 percent of TikTokers (ages 13 to 24) who use the app for more than an hour a day said they believed in numerology. When it came to astrology, 58 percent said it might be a legitimate science. And the flat Earth? 17 percent of teen users couldn’t say definitively that the Earth is round.
Is all this time on social media making young people less intelligent? Probably not. However, the significant changes social media has made to how young people access and interpret information may be making them vulnerable to influence in ways that affect what they think and what they believe to be true.
In light of these questions and the substantial body of research linking social media to negative life outcomes, Reboot conducted a series of surveys in early 2023 to learn about the usage habits of young TikTokers. Of particular interest was how the app influences their beliefs and understanding of news, especially as it relates to science. The surveys also targeted U.S. adults to assess what social media reforms or regulations they would support.
The surveys paint a picture of a society that is simultaneously influenced by and wary of social media platforms that have emerged as the dominant source of news and entertainment for the nation’s youth.
Highlights of our findings include:
- Young users (ages 13 to 17) of TikTok have low trust in science: 42 percent said they disagreed with the statement “Science helps the world more than it harms it.” Conversely, in the general population, similar surveys have found about 75 percent of people agree that science helps more than it harms.
- The average teen TikToker spends more than two hours daily on the app, with 29 percent of young girls and women using the app more than four hours a day.
- There is a strong relationship between the amount of time young people spend on the app and whether they perceive the content as trustworthy: 42 percent of heavy TikTok users said the information on the app is “reliable,” compared with 23 percent of those who use it less than an hour a day.
- When asked to choose between suspending their TikTok use for one year or giving up their right to vote for a year, teen users overwhelmingly – 64 percent – said they would give up their voting rights.
- Among U.S. adults, there is strong support for prohibiting children under 16 from having social media accounts. There is also strong support for requiring social media platforms to warn their users about the links between social media and mental health issues; for prohibiting digital platforms from advertising to children; and for reducing the power of algorithms.
These survey results show that a large majority of the public exhibits a marked wariness toward these platforms and their influence over young people. While Reboot supports reforms and regulations, this is not a problem the government can legislate away. This is a problem that needs to be attacked on multiple fronts by multiple partners including schools, researchers, policymakers, parents, and the tech companies themselves.