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Monday, October 2, 2023
Oct. 2, 2023

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Allen: Texas’ TikTok ban may be healthy starting point


One appropriate response to this month’s move by the University of Texas at Austin, the University of North Texas, and other state schools’ decisions to ban TikTok from their wired and Wi-Fi networks might be: “big woo.” The colleges are simply complying with Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent directive “to all state agencies to eliminate the cybersecurity risks posed by TikTok.”

To be honest, TikTok bans are hardly a revolutionary idea.

The popular social media app is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company, and has long been on the radar of security agencies, not to mention a particular worry of many technology-skeptical conservatives.

Last month, FBI Director Chris Wray heightened the alarm when he elucidated how the Chinese government’s ability to control the app’s recommendation algorithm — which it can use “to manipulate content, and if they want to, to use it for influence operations” — poses a national security risk.

In the ensuing weeks, multiple states and even the federal government have banned use of the app. (Maybe the Trump administration was onto something, after all.)

In an effort to comply with the slew of new state directives, numerous public colleges and universities around the country have also restricted access to the app on campus Wi-Fi networks and devices.

And to be clear, the ban will block the IP address associated with TikTok, which will prevent content from loading when connected to a school’s Wi-Fi network. But it will not altogether bar students from accessing content on their devices when using nonschool networks or their personal cellular data.

That makes any student uproar over the app’s restrictions all the more trivial. Free-speech arguments, which some misinformed students are making, fall flat. There are easy workarounds, which makes the actual impact of the ban on its stated purpose, data security, somewhat uncertain.

But as a mom, banning TikTok — even in limited situations and with a limited data security effect — pleases me for another important reason.

TikTok, and social media in general, is harmful to young people.

This is widely known: Social media use is linked to dramatic increases in depression, social isolation, low self-esteem and suicidal ideation. It’s increasing dramatically: A survey by Common Sense Media found a massive increase in screen usage among teens and tweens from 2019 to 2021. And there appears to be only minimal effort to combat the problem.

Restricting TikTok on college campuses won’t make an immediate, measurable difference. Just as restricting alcohol on campus sends kids to local bars to buy beer, students will find other venues for hours of mindless scrolling. Those with cellular data to burn should still be able to access TikTok from the comfort of their dorm rooms.

The app won’t go away and college kids won’t stop using it.

But it may get us thinking about all the other things that kids on campus don’t need access to on university Wi-Fi networks. Pornography. Hateful content. I can think of many.

Better yet, more colleges could adopt policies like the one in place at the small liberal arts college my friend’s son attends. The school offers $200 to students who voluntarily surrender their personal smartphone or other device at the beginning of the fall semester. The device is returned for breaks and holidays. “Dumb phones” to communicate with family are perfectly acceptable, of course.

The campus also limits internet access. It’s present in academic buildings only, not in dormitories.

My friend’s son says he doesn’t miss his phone or perpetual access to the internet. In fact, he enjoys the freedom, the quiet and the room to do things such as read, enjoy human interaction and rest.

It also gives him more time for, you know, his education.

So whether Texas’ TikTok restriction elicits an “atta boy” or a “big woo,” it’s worth considering: why stop at TikTok?