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Big tech vs. parents: The battle for our children

A teenager presents a smartphone with the logo of Chinese social network Tik Tok, on January 21, 2021, in Nantes, western France.
A teenager presents a smartphone with the logo of Chinese social network Tik Tok, on January 21, 2021, in Nantes, western France. | LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images

Parents today are caught between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, allowing kids online means exposure to content that threatens their mental health and their innocence. On the other hand, removing online access threatens to socially isolate kids from their friends and peer groups.  What are parents to do?  

Earlier this month, social media behemoth TikTok announced that it would soon introduce new features designed to limit access to the app for users under 18 to 60 minutes per day to help parents monitor usage and to silence notifications. Unfortunately, these steps are unlikely to provide the silver bullet parents so desperately need right now for at least two reasons. 

First, the tool is flawed. As commentators have noted, there is nothing to stop minors from continuing to use the app once the hour limit is reached. Rather, at that point, TikTok will simply notify users with a prompt to keep using the app. Though kids under 13 will need parental approval to continue, minors aged 13 to 17 can simply create their own passcode to keep using the app.  

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Second, parental controls cannot override the ideological commitments of social media platforms. TikTok is a perfect example. Last year, the platform updated its community guidelines to prohibit “anti-LGBTQ+ content” and to promote inclusion. Today, a simple TikTok search will turn up thousands of videos of trans-identifying teen girls happily flaunting mutilated chests after “top” surgery. One of these videos has garnered over 30 million views, 644,000 likes, and 18,000 shares. Parents should not rely on TikTok to shield kids from this content. So-called parental controls cannot replace direct and intentional parental engagement. 

Jonathan Haidt has noted that social media’s harms can no longer be reduced only to mere usage. Perhaps in 2012, a teen girl using Instagram for five hours a day would see improvements in mental health if she were to unplug. That is because most of her friends were not on Instagram yet.  

Since 2015, however, the problem has changed. Once social media usage became ubiquitous amongst teens, and smartphone owners became a majority, the popularity of social media and smartphones meant that teens were spending less time together in person. As of 2021, almost three-quarters of minors were owners of smartphones by age 12, and 84% of 13-17-year-olds use social media. 

Given that the majority of teens do interact online, limiting or eliminating a teen’s use of social media seems unthinkable to many parents and could have isolating effects on students. Limiting screen time could even, in some cases, make pre-existing conditions like depression and mental instabilty worse. Haidt thinks that “(e)ach [teen] might be worse off quitting Instagram even though all [teens] would be better off if everyone quit.” 

I understand Haidt’s comment, but I don’t fully agree. As embodied creatures, we are not only shaped by ideas and images but also by our habitual practices. Any long-term solution to the problems that social media presents will have to directly engage our habits and practices. Our current social media practices are not attuning us to the rhythms of reality. Rather, they are embedding in our hearts and minds rhythms of an alternative world, one that does not actually exist.  

This means that parents must not only train their children to think critically and biblically about the content they encounter online — especially on matters of gender and sexuality — they must also work to cultivate better habits of heart and mind as practical alternatives in our present technological culture. That may include long fasts, forbidding and preventing access to social media platforms (especially TikTok and Instagram), or in some cases, taking away phones altogether. 

This could even look like partnering with other parents to provide kids with alternative, tech-free communities. In Maryland, a group of 30 Christian families made a year-long commitment to keep their kids off smartphones and social media. Instead of using tech, these families provided alternatives for social interaction and connection, regularly coming together in person for things like Scottish dances, field days, and community picnics. A year in, parents reported that their kids were more focused, more intentional, and more aware of “what really nourishes and satisfies.”   

We cannot escape digital technology, but we can pursue embodied alternatives to online interactions, cultivate better habits, and foster critical thinking and discernment. In fact, we must.  

Originally published at BreakPoint. 

John Stonestreet serves as president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He’s a sought-after author and speaker on areas of faith and culture, theology, worldview, education and apologetics. John is the daily voice of Breakpoint, the nationally syndicated commentary on the culture, founded by the late Chuck Colson. He is also the voice of The Point, a daily one-minute feature on worldview, apologetics, and cultural issues. 

Jared Eckert (M.A., Religion) is a Breakpoint contributor at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He is a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia where he studied Reformed theology, ethics, and theology of the body. A former researcher at the Heritage Foundation, he has focused his work on social policy and cultural analysis with a special interest in the intersection of gender and tech. His writing has appeared in National ReviewThe Federalist, and The American Conservative. More of Jared's personal research and writing can be found on his Substack Perishable Goods. When he's not writing, Jared enjoys rock climbing, designing books, hosting dinners, and spending time with his niece and nephews.

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