How TikTok’s new teens policy could drive up ad costs

How TikTok’s new teens policy could drive up ad costs

Limiting teens’ usage of TikTok could create artificial scarcity of content and ad inventory, media buyers warn.


Last week, TikTok announced it would default teen users of its platform to only use the app for an hour a day.

In the statement, the short-form video platform framed the change as being done to attempt to tackle social media’s negative effects on the teen mental health, a conversation which reached a tipping point in the UK last year with the development of the Online Safety Bill.

But any change that seeks to limit time spent on the platform could also have significant commercial implications downstream, and advertisers are watching closely to know how it might change the way they target teens on and off TikTok.

Estimates suggest that teen users average over 90 minutes on TikTok per day. It remains to be seen whether the shift that seeks to reduce that number to closer to 60 minutes will actually be successful. It is, after all, an optional feature.

But Shayla Crane, head of social at independent media agency the7stars, is sceptical. “Whilst I think it is a great idea of TikTok to introduce these new limits and attempt to enforce more of a balance between on-screen and off-screen time, I don’t expect there to be a huge impact on users or advertisers due the settings being easily overridden.

“I am an iPhone user and am notified of my (shamefully high) screen time every week but has it ever changed my viewing habits? No, and I can’t see this being any different to teenagers [on TikTok].”

Smart advertisers should ‘spread their efforts’

However, if users do exercise self-control and restrict their time enough to cause advertisers to rethink their social strategies, it could come at a higher cost for digital media buyers.

Alistair Parrington, chief solutions officer, organic social at independent digital marketing company Jellyfish, argues that the less time teens spend on the platform, the more valuable the time they do spend on the platform will become.

“If use of the platform is restricted as a result [of the policy change], the attention given to each piece of content of course becomes more precious,” Parrington said. “Marketing efforts in this space could arguably have an even larger impact due to the increased weight given to each piece of video viewed within a restricted time frame.”

In other words, limiting teens’ usage of TikTok would create artificial scarcity of content and ad inventory.

A decline in time spent on the platform may well also compel TikTok to become even more effective in its algorithm, Parrington said. It will be even more imperative for audiences, if they begin restricting their time on the platform, that the content they are viewing is as engaging as possible in order to derive the most value from their daily TikTok quota.

For now, Parrington advises that “smart advertisers should continue to spread their efforts across a range of platforms, including YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels, to ensure they are maximising opportunities across the marketing mix.”

Will other social media follow?

When asked how the change could impact TikTok’s commercial strategy for its youngest users, a spokesperon for TikTok told The Media Leader: “The safety and well-being of our community is our priority and brand partners are supportive of our focus in this area. Brands are a welcome and inspiring part of the TikTok experience.”

Cormac Keenan, head of trust and safety at TikTok, added in a blog post that the company will look to “continue to invest in improving our current features as well as introducing new tools to help people stay in control as they express their creativity, make meaningful connections, and enjoy culture-defining entertainment.”

While TikTok is the first major social media company to set an optional limit on teen usage, it may well not be the last. Studies have found social media services to be addictive for a minority share of users. As attention on the negative effects of platforms’ use continue to come to light, others, such as Instagram, may well seek to implement similar self-regulatory changes. Not doing so would, in effect, render any attempt by an individual company to remedy such concerns moot.

As Crane notes, “unless every other social media platform follows suit then I doubt we’ll see a huge impact across the advertising landscape.”

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