My first cell phone was a brick-shaped Nokia with a couple hundred minutes loaded onto it. My parents gave it to me when I got my first car, on the understanding that, whenever I drove somewhere that wasn’t school, I’d call them as soon as I arrived so they’d know I was safe. It was a reasonable rule—especially given how many times it took me to pass my driver’s test—and one to which I had no problem agreeing. Even still, I almost never remembered to do it. I’d be in the middle of a movie at the theater and I’d realize that I had forgotten to call. I’d sprint out to the car—where I kept the phone itself—and have a brief, harried conversation with my worried and deeply irritated parents. They knew, of course, that I was likely fine. But it’s hard to not know what your kids are doing without you.

This not knowing is at the heart of a lot of contemporary parental anxiety over teens, social media, and screen time. And it animates a lot of the efforts to fight how much children are using their devices. Last week, TikTok announced that users below the age of 18 will be subject to a limit of one hour per day as part of its new suite of tools designed to limit kids’ exposure to the app. TikTok will begin to compile and send a weekly screen time recap to users, giving them stats about their personal usage relative to previous weeks. The app has also introduced a new “family pairing” tool that will allow parents to monitor their children’s screen time and even implement custom content and usage restrictions.  Not all of these new restrictions, however, will be hard and fast. Users between 13 and 17 years old will have numerous internal options to bypass their limit or even set their own. 

In other words, TikTok’s new measures are unlikely to make a meaningful dent in teenage usage of the app. What these steps are likely to do, what they are in fact designed to do, is help reinforce the general cultural sense that screen time alone is the problem. Parents are worried about their kids’ mental health, and they’re worried that social media is making it worse. Social media companies would love it if everyone agreed that the solution was just a little screen time diet. 

From the moment kids are old enough to go to school—and well before that for working families—they begin to live huge swaths of their lives out of view of their parents. These out-of-sight times are a tremendously fraught mystery for parents. You try to trust their teachers, their caregivers, the institutions in which they learn, the communities through which they move, but that trust is largely blind. I have two very talkative young daughters who are happy to regale us with tales of their school days, but my picture of what goes on between drop-off and pick-up is foggy at best. My first grader walks out of school with a bag of Fritos and a stack of graphic novels, talking about how her friend is going to have a herd of dyed-pink ponies at her birthday party, and I have to just figure out the rest.

That inaccessible time can be a space of some anxiety for parents. It undergirds the contemporary reactionary panic about critical race theory and gender identity and librarians illicitly handing out Toni Morrison novels to kindergartners from beneath their trench coats. Parents simply don’t know what their kids do all day. That lack of knowledge begins to feel like a lack of control,  and that can be maddening enough to turn into a kind of monstrosity. It bans books and it gets teachers fired and it polices pronouns.

Social media is the ultimate specter of this invisible, unsupervised time. Parents see their children staring at screens, and they know that worlds exist inside those rectangles that are unreachable to them, even if they are just curled up in an armchair 10 feet away. These worlds are full of specialized languages, secret social codes, and networks of references and in-jokes that would take weeks of immersive study to grasp. Parents can’t learn enough to understand what their children are being exposed to, what worlds they are helping to build online, and so the recourse turns to time itself.

Strict time limits—whether imposed by parents or tech companies—make the complexities of mental health and social life seem tantalizingly easy to address. But, as Devorah Heitner, author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Survive (and Thrive) in Their Digital World, says, “Just counting the minutes of ‘screen time’ won’t tell you everything you need to know.” Heitner advocates conversation rather than surveillance and constraint, asking children questions about their experiences, online and off. Helping young people develop a healthy relationship to screens and social media is significantly harder work than just shutting off the tap. 

People have been worried about the possibility that screens (TVs especially) were having deleterious effects on the youth of America since they first hit the market. The phrase “screen time” bubbled up into mainstream consciousness in the early 1990s with a Mother Jones article by commentator Tom Engelhardt. Engelhardt’s essay is a pointed exploration of the way that advertising seeps into children’s television and a critique of TV aesthetics that dull rather than enliven young minds. Despite the relative nuance of his argument, Engelhardt’s coinage of the phrase “screen time” helped solidify our contemporary obsession with time, the counting stats of media exposure rather than its content. The screen-time moral panic that’s developed over the past 30 years has absolved parents of having to figure out how screens were or weren’t eroding the minds of the kids who use them. They could just focus on quantity.

TikTok’s move to limit the time kids spend on the app is not so different from the “Screen Time” feature that’s come standard-issue with most Apple products for the past five years. In 2018, Apple introduced Screen Time as part of its iOS 12 software package. It heralded the arrival of this feature by saying, “By understanding how they’re interacting with their iOS devices, people can take control of how much time they spend in a particular app.” But what Screen Time could help us understand was always secondary to what it could make us feel. Specifically, it made us feel bad, guilty, out-of-control. The feature notably offers no suggestions for healthy amounts of screen time, no helpful norms or target goals. Rather, it gives us charts and graphs that neatly, and stylishly, reflect what we already fear about our screen use; namely, there’s too much of it. The more mystical feature of Screen Time is that it was a place to displace our anxiety about, well, screen time. 

As we now confront a decade during which young people—especially teen girls and LGBTQ+ teens—feel increasingly unhappy and under threat, and a culture still reeling from the mass death and estrangement of a pandemic, screen time has yet again surfaced as a convenient patsy. These ubiquitous screens, and the time we spend with them, are the avatar for all manner of social and personal quagmires. Screen time is a multipurpose moral panic.

Features like Screen Time and TikTok’s new restrictions are built on the understanding that time spent on our devices is the root of all our problems. While apps have cropped up to help us set and achieve step-count goals and reading goals and even mental agility goals in recent years, there are no achievements in regulatory tools like Screen Time, only failures. TikTok tells you your time is up and then, with the press of a button, gives you more. Apple sends you an alert that asks you to look at your screen, and then it makes you feel bad for looking. As Ian Bogost put it shortly after Screen Time’s release back in 2018, features like this only manage to make your “self-loathing more self-aware.” 

Screens are not innocent. They are made by human hands—often exploited ones—and they are imbued with all the folly of their creators. We all know what it’s like to stare too long at a screen and see the worst versions of ourselves reflected back. And we also know that it can feel good to take a break from screens, especially when they become the medium for extended bouts of revenge bedtime procrastination. But it’s a narrow view of society that could lay all of its problems upon them. Screens are magnifiers. They can lead us to see the failures of institutional care, of empathy, of imagination that make life hard for vulnerable people in this country. They make invisible things visible. 

Regulatory apps like Screen Time or tools like the ones TikTok is implementing now allow us to outsource our anxiety about ourselves and our children. But they do nothing to assuage it or to address its root causes. If children are being harmed by social media, what is it specifically that’s harming them? If strict limits shelter children from negative interactions, will they also block them from positive ones, communities young people have found online that they can’t replicate elsewhere? And if kids are being driven online, what’s driving them there? What cultural, economic, and institutional factors are making it harder for kids to find their people, find safe spaces, or even just find ways to spend their time offline? 

A recent CDC survey found that unhappiness has risen sharply among teenagers in the past decade. Pundits were quick to connect these mental health trends with the rise of social media. But that same CDC survey also revealed that incidences of sexual violence against teenage girls rose by 20 percent in the last five years, and that nearly one in 10 LGBTQ+ teenagers skipped school because they did not feel safe there. Phones didn’t do that. Regulatory tools like these latest ones from TikTok let us focus our energy on the objects our kids use, and they help us lose track of the users themselves. What they need, what they’ve lost, what they’re searching for.

Because these problems surrounding adolescent mental health are complex, because they lack singular causes or obvious fixes, because they are self-evidently larger than the rectangular screen in your bag, the solutions that tech companies offer are not really solutions at all. They are distractions themselves. 

The cultural panic about screen time has never really been about screens. It’s about growing up, consumerism, the looming fear of obsolescence, violence, loneliness, and loss. These new TikTok regulations, much like Apple’s Screen Time, are not about managing yours or your child’s healthy or unhealthy relation to screens. They’re about neatly organizing all of your panic into a single location. You, in other words, your anxiety, is the app. Screen Time, and now TikTok, just helps you activate yourself.