Care and Feeding

My 10-Year-Old Is Really Into TikTok. What Should I Do?

A girl wearing headphones and flannel screams while holding a tablet.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by loco75/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

My daughter, “Elsa,” is 10 and has recently become interested in TikTok. So far, it’s harmless—my husband and I monitor what she looks at, she likes making silly videos, and it’s fun to make them together as a family. But I get worried about how it will be in a few years. It’s not even necessarily the potential for danger; I’m comfortable with addressing things like communicating with strangers and dangerous challenges. It’s more the idea of her getting caught up in this online world that kids live in these days. I see kids not much older than my daughter just glued to their devices, scrolling endlessly, talking about this TikTok person or that one, and I hate it. People say, well, I’m sure as a kid/teenager you had celebrities you wanted to be like, but I see that differently—the internet didn’t really become a thing until my later high school years, so it’s not like I had access 24/7 to celebrity personalities. I’ve talked about it with my friends, and they say they feel a bit helpless because they don’t love it either, but if they don’t allow their kids access, it would be like making them outcasts, because the kids then would be missing out on what their friends do and talk about. I get that; AOL/AIM became hugely popular when I was in high school, but my parents didn’t want to pay for internet, so I always felt left out when my friends talked about it. I don’t want to deny my daughter when the time comes, but I’m at a complete loss as to how to ensure she doesn’t become overly obsessed. I want her to live in the real world, not in some teenage influencer’s world. How do I navigate this?

—TikTok Goes the Clock

Dear TTGtC,

On one hand, I get it—there are entire teenage microcosms that exist on YouTube and TikTok, and it is rather disorienting when us Olds start to dip a toe in. Social media celebrities, the content they produce, and the way teens engage with it are all very different than the celebrity magazine features or TRL appearances of yore. It’s more unstructured and bleeds indistinctly across apps and platforms. It’s a weird blend of reality and carefully constructed fiction. It’s immersive, yet consumed in secondslong gulps.

On the other hand, TikTok can be great! I don’t even have TikTok, and I often come across content that delights me. At its best, the form can be hilarious, subversive, educational, or sharply analytical—and, usually, produced by teenagers or young adults. In general, teenagers have much, much better taste than they’re credited for. Sure, some of the content they consume seems weird and mindless and its appeal is inexplicable to me, but plenty of it is creative and interesting and forward-thinking. (And of course, I’m sure they’d aim similar critique at my Twitter doomscrolling or mental catalog of mom bloggers from the mid-2000s.)

Basically, I think this is the natural order of media consumption. Teens are into something, and disapproving adults Don’t Get It: a tale as old as time. What I can tell you for sure is that as your daughter ages into her tween and teen years, nothing will put her off faster than an out-of-touch, kids-these-days lecture or expression of concern, so I’d say try to be open-minded and play it cool. Set and enforce general family rules and expectations about device usage and make sure she’s got interesting, enriching in-person activities available to her. Keep monitoring her general safety and keep an eye out that she’s not going down a rabbit hole of misinformation or radicalization (which, to my mind, is the far bigger threat these days). But also, take her interests seriously, gain a passing familiarity with her faves, and give her credit for her developing taste and judgment. She’ll be fine!

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have three kids under 5 and have taken the year off from teaching to be home with them while their schools and day cares are closed. My biggest challenge is what seems like a near-constant assault on my ears. My kids are so noisy. I can’t stand it! I can handle one loud noise at a time, but the layered levels of noise really fray my nerves. When my 7-month-old is fussing and my 2-year-old is screaming and my 5-year-old is humming while he plays Legos, all at the same time, it takes everything in me not to run out of the house screaming. My 5-year-old cannot seem to stop humming or singing—he doesn’t even notice he’s doing it. And my 2-year -ld is incapable of using an indoor voice. I spend every meal saying “one at a time” because the 2- and 5-year-olds are constantly talking over each other and over me and my husband.

Is it normal how much this bothers me? I truly feel like I am going to lose it at times. What is a reasonable amount of quiet to expect from young children? It feels unfairly demanding to be constantly asking them to stop singing or keep their voices down. Is there anything I can do about this?

—Suffering in the Opposite of Silence

Dear SitOoS,

Oh, HELL yeah it’s normal. I think the feeling of sensory overload—being “touched out,” agitated by noise, or generally overstimulated—is the emotional baseline for many, many people right now. I am a silence-and-solitude craving introvert married to one major extrovert and parenting another, and sometimes I end my day feeling like there is radio static cranked to full volume in my brain, and trying to string my thoughts together feels about as organized as shooting a confetti cannon. We are collectively trying to persevere through a slow-burn catastrophe from which there has been no respite and for which there is no end in sight, and we’re being ignored by our government. That’s … pretty taxing! You are so, so not alone in your exhaustion manifesting as this kind of edginess and frayed patience.

However, it is the biological mandate of kids this age to make the kinds of noises that yours are making. Babies fuss; toddlers melt down; kindergartners sing and talk to themselves when absorbed in play; the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. It would be an exercise in futility and frustration on all sides to expect it to stop. (I do think you should keep trying to teach and model appropriate volume and manners at more structured moments like sitting down to dinner; I also think you should keep your expectations low.)

Fortunately, while you can’t do much about the ambient noise level of having three kids of these ages, there are things you can do to cope with it. Get yourself some earplugs or noise-canceling headphones, for starters. (If your mom guilt alarm starts immediately ringing at the thought of tuning them out a bit, try flipping the script and telling yourself that it is a way to give them access to your best, most patient self instead.) You are entitled to and need some silent time to reset, whether that’s running a few errands by yourself, going for a daily walk, or, if you handle mornings OK, getting up just a little earlier than your kids do. Make sure your husband is on the same page about that, and work together to make that time a priority. You mentioned running out of the house screaming—if it’s really bad in a certain moment, I would try to hold in the scream, but you totally can go outside. Just go out and stand on your front step and take a two-minute breather. They will be fine, and you will feel better.

Hang in there. Someday, we WILL sit alone in a clean, perfectly silent room again. I have to believe this.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Is it OK for little kids to watch violent nature documentaries? My son is almost 5 and he loves learning about animals. We have watched a couple nature shows with him that he has found very interesting, but there are parts that I can’t even watch! We’re certainly not seeking out the most graphic and violent content, but real life in the animal kingdom is often brutal. Is this educationally enriching, or is it bad for him to watch animals eat one another?

—National GeoTOOgraphic?

Dear National GeoTOOgraphic,

It probably depends on the context and the individual kid, but as a general rule, I vote educational. (Though, for reference, I was raised and am now raising my kids in a rural area where opportunities for predator-prey and circle-of-life conversations present themselves fairly often.)

If your 5-year-old were crying, having nightmares, or seeming to perseverate on scenes of animal death, then I’d certainly advise you to stop—but if he’s eager and unperturbed by the harsher realities of the natural world, then I think there’s much to be gained from exposing him to these shows! My kindergartner similarly loves learning about animals, and while she’s been briefly dismayed or alarmed when viewing successful chase scenes, she’s also been receptive and interested in conversations about how predation maintains a natural balance and creates a healthy ecosystem. I personally think viewing nature documentaries encourages curiosity and appreciation for the environment. And when it’s accompanied by discussions of what you’re viewing, it can help develop early literacy in science concepts. (Plus, it is sad to see an adorable wide-eyed baby picked off from the herd—but on the flip side, it is thrilling and impressive to see a large predator spring into action.)

If you haven’t watched it already, I suggest Planet Earth II as an age-appropriate choice: soothing narration, stunning imagery, and some tense hunting scenes—but no entrails.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am at a loss and don’t know where to turn. I am a divorced mom of two sons, ages 16 and 14. Their dad and I have a good relationship, and he is very much in the picture. We are struggling with our oldest son. High school has been rough for him. He’s socially well-adapted (probably too social), athletic, musical, handsome, funny, charming, quick-witted, and intelligent. He’s a kid who could go far if he chose to, especially because he attends a well-resourced public district—yet we can’t keep him engaged in school.

He was diagnosed with ADD in primary school (and he takes medication for it), but he performs well academically when he completes his work, receiving high B’s and A’s. His freshman year he failed two classes, and he is in process of making those up now—in his junior year. He received some citations for truancy and vaping in his sophomore year, but that year otherwise generally went pretty well. Our son enjoys great school support from his adviser and an academic aide, and his teachers are fantastically supportive.

Since COVID, things have absolutely crashed. Now I have to check every 90 minutes to make sure he’s out of bed, logged in to his classes, and attending. He regularly lies about his homework, even doing things like showing us old files he attached to a current assignment to make it appear complete. He wants to drop out of school and get his GED and move out as soon as he can. We’ve tried taking him through the paces of what it requires to live independently as a young person, particularly in a high-cost market—deposits, first and last months’ rent, utilities, pet deposits, all on a minimum wage job—not to mention what it would cost him long term. He doesn’t care. He continues to sleep, skip, and hang with friends. He’s convinced that he can move in with friends, and that they’ll have a fun place together (without seeming to understand what it will take to make this happen).

His dad I are at our wits’ end, not only because we feel wracked with disappointment at how we’ve failed him and because he’s capable of so much more than this, but because he clearly doesn’t get how hard and potentially self-destructive this is. We’ve tried counseling at school and independently, and even explored wilderness camps (vomit-inducingly expensive) or relocating to a new state just for a fresh start. His therapist and school counselors don’t have any ideas. I can’t even eat most days because I’m so upset. Every day I have to decide whether to cut my losses and just let him go, or whether I should keep trying. Do you have any guidance to offer?

—Feeling Heartbroken, Hopeless, and Haggard

Dear HHH,

I’d be remiss if I didn’t first tell you not to engage with the troubled teen industry. Those wilderness camps aren’t just expensive—they’re dangerously underregulated, and there are plenty of accounts of the harm they can cause. Don’t pursue that idea further.

Next, I think you need to look for a new therapist for your son. It doesn’t sound like his current one has helped much, and if they’re tossing their hands up and offering no insight or suggestions, they aren’t doing their job. I’d try to find someone better equipped to support him and help you ascertain if there might be something clinical going on, be it depression or anxiety or substance abuse or something else.

I also think it would help a lot to work on your own mindset. I’m struck by how much you’ve internalized and taken on your son’s current challenges. If you can’t eat and feel hopeless, if you’re checking on him every 90 minutes and even considering uprooting the entire family’s lives with a drastic move, that’s a lot, and those are big reactions to something you ultimately can’t control. I think you need to work on making better peace with the idea that you cannot make your son do anything. Not wake up on time, not complete his assignments, not wrap his head around the impact of his choices nor grasp the realities of living independently as an adult. If you could change his behavior through the sheer force of your will and desire to do so, it would have worked already. He’s young and immature and struggling, but he does have agency here, and I think you have to reckon with that a bit more.

I’m also not sure I perceive this as the abject crisis that you seem to. Has your son lost his way? For sure he has, and I’m not at all trying to diminish the pain of watching him stumble. But for one thing, the pandemic has caused a dramatic disruption in his educational career, and that has to be taken into account; lots of teenagers are struggling with the changes COVID has wrought. For another, your son sounds like a kid with many wonderful qualities who has been set up for success in nearly every conceivable way. That’s part of what makes his behavior so frustrating, of course, but it also means there’s a long way to go before he finds himself in a true catastrophe. His safety net is broad and strong.

What if he does drop out of high school? What if he does find a low-paying job and get an apartment and hang out with his buddies and find that it’s not what he imagined—or it actually suits him fine? Is that truly the worst-case scenario? You wanted more and different for him, surely, and that’s OK. Everybody’s got hopes and aspirations for their kids, and it’s really painful to feel like your dreams for his success may not come to pass. But screwing around and making ill-advised, immature decisions and trying to figure your shit out for a while in your late teens is not the nuclear option. It’s not a life squandered, and it’s certainly not irreversible. I think it’s interesting that you framed your choices as “keep trying” or “cut my losses and just let him go.” What would that mean to let him go? No matter how his high school experience turns out, he’ll still be your son whom you love, healthy and whole and with all those great qualities you appreciate, right? What if there were a third option, and it were something like, “I’m disappointed in your choices, but I love you no matter what, and I hope this works out.”

Definitely keep setting limits (I’d be especially clear on what you will and will not pay for, and what kind of privileges he should not expect to enjoy if he’s not meeting basic expectations while living in your home), and keep using the resources at your disposal. You might even want to try therapy yourself, both to affirm how much you’re struggling and help you unshoulder the weight of his decisions. This is a rough patch, and the way forward isn’t clear. That’s scary. But I think trying to expand your vision of what “being OK” means, taking reassurance in the knowledge that you’re doing what you can, and seeking to let go of the anxiety and pressure you’re feeling are all good places to start.

—Carrie Bauer

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