I recently walked past my nine-year-old son’s room and heard video playing on his iPad. It was a Friday afternoon and he’d earned a little hand-held screentime. I peeked into his room, watching him smiling and laughing as he watched — and then I saw him swipe his finger. There was a quick tempo change, and someone was talking, narrating some kind of video game. Another swipe, and it was a techno song. What in the TikTok was happening? I know what apps are on his device, and none have content quite this condensed and fast-paced. “Hey buddy, what are you watching?” I asked, braced for his response. “Youtube Shorts!” he replied excitedly.
Fantastic, I thought to myself. What the hell are those?
It did not take me long to find out. Youtube Shorts are essentially TikTok videos but on Youtube, and easily accessible on the Youtube app. Ugh. Great, just what parents needed: something else that’s basically TikTok, but even easier for them to access since it’s within an app they’re likely already using. Of course, these competing social media platforms need to keep up with each other, but jeez — it is a lot to keep track of and manage as a parent. And I’m not typically super strict with screen time, but after a bit of research and knowledge of my own experience, I decided to set a hard limit on this app. In my house, Youtube Shorts are officially banned. And my kids are not happy about it.
I know firsthand the impact that binging 90-second video clips has on my 38-year-old adult brain, so I can only imagine the effects it could have on a child. My TikTok habits are terrible. I unknowingly lose hours to the app. I go down strange rabbit holes and swipe for long periods as I get mesmerized by the silly, bizarre, self-indulgent videos of strangers. And I know only one thing for sure — I never leave a video binge session feeling better about anything. I usually feel worse. I wish my house was nicer, my thighs were smaller, and my job was more lucrative. It’s a confidence and time suck for my fully formed and mature adult brain. So how could my kids even stand a chance?
Studies show an increase in depression and anxiety as well as lowered attention span with kids who regularly watch these short videos in this format. In these articles, the phenomenon is described as “Tiktok Brain”, which describes the dopamine production produced by engaging in these apps and the long-term effects it has on the molding minds of children. I mean, duh. This seems obvious to me and I am far from a scientist.
But even when you know you are making the right decision for your family, disappointing your kids still sucks. So when I announced the new “short” rule, and my kids were livid, I was bummed. But I still think it’s right. Because when brain development and mental health could be on the line, I’ve gotta stay firm. Ya know, like making them wear bike helmets and refusing to let them watch rated R movies.
So here’s to hoping I can keep a pulse on the evolution of these apps as my kids get older to set limits for as long as possible. Because despite their frustrations with me, the stakes are too high, and I have to do my best to protect them. Wish me luck.
Samm is an ex-lawyer and mom of four who swears a lot. Find her on Instagram @sammbdavidson.