One appropriate reaction to the decision by the University of Texas at Austin, the University of North Texas and other public schools to ban TikTok from their wired and Wi-Fi networks this week might be: “big woo.”
Colleges are simply complying with Governor Greg Abbott’s recent directive to “all government agencies to address cybersecurity risks posed by TikTok.”
To be honest, TikTok bans are hardly a revolutionary idea.
The popular social media app is owned by Chinese company ByteDance and has long been on the radar of security agencies, not to mention the particular concern of many tech-skeptic conservatives.
Last month, FBI Director Chris Wray increased anxiety when he explained (repeatedly) how the Chinese government’s ability to control the app’s recommendation algorithm — which it can use “to manipulate content and, if it wants to, use it for influence operations” — poses a national security risk.
To comply with a number of new government directives, many public colleges and universities across the country have also restricted access to the app on campus Wi-Fi networks and devices.
Auburn University, along with state universities in Georgia, South Dakota and Montana, are among those that have already banned the app.
Texas schools are a little behind the curve in that sense.
To be clear, the ban will block the IP address associated with TikTok, which will prevent the content from being downloaded when connected to the school’s Wi-Fi network. But it doesn’t completely prohibit students from accessing content on their devices when using non-school networks or personal cellular data.
This makes any student clamor over app limitations even more trivial. Free speech arguments made by some ignorant students fail.
Professors who complain about having to rewrite curricula that include the use of TikTok in assignments can easily find other equivalent programs for gathering information or creating content.
The same goes for students using the app as influencers.
There are easy workarounds, making the ban’s actual impact on its stated goal of data security somewhat uncertain.
But as a mom, banning TikTok — even in limited situations and with likely limited data security effects — pleases me for another important reason.
TikTok and social media in general are harming young people.
It’s widely known that social media use is associated with a dramatic increase in depression, social isolation, low self-esteem, and suicidal ideation. It increases sharply: A survey Common Sense Media found a significant increase in screen use among tweens and tweens from 2019 to 2021. And there seems to be minimal effort being made to combat this problem.
Restricting TikTok on college campuses won’t bring immediate measurable change. Just as alcohol restrictions on campus send kids to local bars to buy beer, students will find other places for hours of mindless scrolling. Those with cellular data to record should still be able to access TikTok from the comfort of their dorms.
The app won’t go away, and students won’t stop using it.
But it might make us wonder about all the other things kids on campus don’t need access to on college Wi-Fi networks. Pornography. Hate content. I can think of many.
Better yet, more colleges could adopt a policy like the single seat at the small liberal arts college my friend’s son attends.
The school is offering $200 to students who voluntarily turn in their personal smartphone or other device at the start of the fall semester. The device returns for breaks and rest. “Dumb phones” for communicating with family are of course perfectly acceptable.
The campus also restricts Internet access. It is available only in academic buildings, not in dormitories.
My friend’s son says he doesn’t miss his phone or constant Internet access. In fact, he enjoys freedom, quiet and space for activities such as reading, enjoying human contact and relaxation.
It also gives him more time for, you know, his education.
So, whether the TikTok ban in Texas is an ‘atta boy’ or a ‘big match’, it’s worth considering: why stop at TikTok?