Is social media addictive?

Short clips on social media delight young and old alike. Consequently, we spend more time on social media services than planned. Parents and youth protection officers are particularly concerned about the potential risks of social media usage for children and young people.  One pressing question remains: what are operators doing to protect minors on their platforms?

Date 2024-03-25 Author German Safer Internet Centre Section awareness Topic media literacy/education Audience media specialist, parents and carers, research, policy and decision makers
Teenager scrolling on his phone

In line with the Digital Services Act that recently came into force, the EU has initiated formal proceedings against the video platform TikTok, citing concerns such as "addictive design". Additionally, we provide information about the factors parents should consider when their children use social media.

According to the latest JIM study, young people spend almost 213 minutes on smartphones daily. Instagram, TikTok and YouTube are among the most important applications. They offer children and young people many ways of discovering the latest trends, following their idols, introducing themselves and becoming part of the social media community. However, children and young people also come across content on social media that can be harmful to minors, like instructions for self-harming behaviour, extremist content, dangerous challenges or glorification of alcohol or drug consumption. Children and young people are also exposed to stressful interaction risks such as cyberbullying and sexual assault (cyber grooming) on social networks. One thing is clear: children and young people need effective protection within digital platforms

Digital Services Act - EU opens proceedings against TikTok 

On February 17, 2024, the Digital Services Act (DSA) was enacted for all internet services. The Digital Services Act regulates online services within the EU and aims to create more protection for users of online services. The EU Commission is formally investigating whether the video platform TikTok may have violated the DSA by failing to protect underage users adequately. This concerns the transparency of advertising,  adequate age verification of users and sufficient protection from addiction and problematic content ("rabbit hole effects") due to algorithmic systems

What keeps children and young people glued to screens? 

Social media services are similar to online games, for example. The design aims to keep users on the service as long as possible. With these so-called dark patterns manipulative strategies, users are unconsciously motivated to continue playing or using an online application through targeted advertising, displaying content based on their interests and rewards. Online services such as TikTok, Instagram, or YouTube short videos are structured so that users can scroll endlessly - so there is no time when you have to look through all the videos or posts. As a result, users may increasingly struggle to resist reaching for their smartphones. 

Tips for parents and guardians 

If your children use online services such as TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, or Snapchat:

  • Find out the minimum age and the guidelines for each service 
  • Ensure greater safety by setting up the user account together, showing reporting options and defining usage rules
  • Explain manipulative mechanisms in social media services. Then, create rules for screen time and application usage with your children,
  • and monitor your child's social media usage. For example, regularly ask about current trends and challenges or which channels and influencers your child follows. You can discover appropriate s conversation starters.

Are you worried about your child's media usage?  Contact the German Safer Internet Centre for help and advice.

Alternatively, you can find more information about the work of the German Safer Internet Centre, including its awareness raising, helpline, hotline, and youth participation services, or similar information for other Safer Internet Centres throughout Europe.   

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