The New TikTok Challenge

For the impossible task of choosing a film for movie night with my kids, I’ve resorted to Googling “Best kids movies of 1984” so I can force them to watch what I watched as a six-year-old. They give it twenty minutes before they can turn it off. Last Friday I chose The Neverending Story, a film about a young boy, Bastian, who finds a magical book in which he becomes part of its story. The primary villain in Fantasica (the fantasy world within the book) is what is referred to as “The Nothingness.” It’s not a monster or robot or evil dictator. It’s a sense of emptiness that pervades Fantastica and swallows up its inhabitants, one by one. As the story unfolds, we learn that Fantastica can only survive if humans foster their sense of imagination and hope.

I’ve been wanting to write this for several months now, but I didn’t want to be the old guy with the tired argument about “kids these days” and their obsession with technology. You’ve read that essay before. But last week, when a student showed me her iPhone screen time and I saw 24 hours on TikTok for the week, I broke.

Social media has become “The Nothingness.”

And I want to be clear that I don’t think all kids have a problem. Some are able to manage it quite well. But most, like most adults, cannot. Former Google executive Tristan Harris said it best:

“Every time you open an app, there are 1,000 people behind the screen being paid really well to keep you scrolling.”

How can one person, much less a teenager with a developing brain, combat this kind of power?

A colleague made the argument that compared social media to candy. She said she made the mistake of banning candy in her house, and now her grown daughters are both addicted to sweets. It’s an understandable comparison, but not an apt one.

(Side note: her kids did not get into social media and they are flourishing right now).

I (and most neuroscientists) contend that smartphones in general and social media apps, in particular, are more like cocaine than candy. I don’t think anyone would say “We need to expose our kids to cocaine when they’re young so they know how to manage it later.” Candy is finite, french fries are finite, even TV is finite. But a smartphone provides an infinite world of possibilities, many of them not healthy.

And of course, we all know as parents that it feels impossible to manage something that we cannot see, let alone understand. My son begs me to take him to the library to play Minecraft (that’s a whole other essay) and I struggle to drag him off so we can read a book. Yes, I recognize the horrible irony in this.

To be sure, misuse or overuse of social media is not necessarily always the problem. It may be more of a symptom of a deeper problem – boredom, fear, loneliness, isolation, depression. But having it readily at hand does not help.

There is hope. For one, my kids sat through all of The Neverending Story and loved it. We even got the book from the library (after Minecraft). Also, I met with another student last week and when she showed me her screen time (see image below), my heart sang. When I asked her why her screentime is so low, she answered flatly: “I have too much other stuff to do.”

For the student who has spent a full day on TikTok, I issued the Mr. Hughes TikTok Challenge: Delete the app for a full week. Although she only lasted two days, her TikTok time was down to eight hours. What did she do with that 16 hours? “Maybe some schoolwork, but mostly I slept.” To me, and to most pediatricians, psychologists, and neuroscientists, that’s a win.

At the end of The Neverending Story, Bastian’s love of reading, expansive imagination, and hope for the future ultimately defeat The Nothingness, and Fantastica is saved.

Everybody with me now…let’s join Bastian. Take out your phone, find your favorite social media app, press down your finger, and click the red “X.” There is something waiting to take its place.

Perhaps it’s imagination. Or hope. Or simply, in the words of my student, “other stuff” more worthy of our attention.

This seems reasonable.