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The Digital Wellness Lab aims to mediate between TikTok and parents

The Digital Wellness Lab aims to mediate between TikTok and parents

As some states try to regulate children’s social media use and TikTok emerges as a geopolitical chew toy, a new clearinghouse has emerged for mediating between tech companies and those concerned about their products’ impact on kids: the Digital Wellness Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

Why it matters: Young people live their lives on social media, and it’s not going away — so parents and pediatricians need to learn to recognize when it becomes a problem, says pediatrician Michael Rich, the lab’s founder.

  • At the same time, tech companies need to set appropriate guardrails, Rich tells Axios.
  • Rich argues that unhealthy internet use is not an addiction, but rather a disorder he’s dubbed Problematic Interactive Media Use — or PIMU — that indicates other underlying problems, including mood disorders and ADHD.
  • PIMU is “a collection of symptoms of kids seeking to soothe themselves, to comfort themselves, to distract themselves,” he tells Axios.

Where it stands: Rich founded the Digital Wellness Lab in 2021 to look at the unknown health consequences of the surge in kids spending six-plus hours a day online.

  • With sponsorship from major tech platforms — such as Twitch, Roblox, Snap, Discord and TikTok — the Lab is trying to address the concerns of parents, doctors and lawmakers without villainizing the companies involved.

What they’re saying: “After close to 30 years of doing this research, I grew tired and frustrated with the fact that it was in a polarized, adversarial environment,” says Rich, a professor at Harvard Medical School and a doctor at Boston Children’s Hospital.

  • “The pediatricians were saying, ‘The kids are in trouble,’ and the policymakers are freaking out and saying, ‘We’ve got to make laws about this.’ And the tech and entertainment companies are in siege mentality and defensive mode.”

Rich — a former filmmaker who calls himself the “Mediatrician” — is pulling the constituencies together to hammer out ground rules based on science and common sense.

  • The Digital Wellness Lab aims to provide “serious, rigorous, unbiased research” for consumers and producers of technology, Rich says.
  • “Kids are on these screens all the time. We have to figure out when it becomes dysfunctional — at what point.”
  • “It’s really about their behavior,” he adds. “It’s not about the device itself because there are tons of kids with smartphones and social media who do fine, right?”

Driving the news: Bowing to pressure, TikTok recently set a 60-minute screen time limit for children under 18 (albeit one that kids or their parents can bypass by punching in a code) — after seeking advice from the Digital Wellness Lab.

Read the complete article here.

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