If TikTok Gets Banned, Will It Solve Schools’ Social Media Drama?

This article was first published by Education Week, Alyson Klein, Assistant Editor for EducationWeek

TikTok—the platform that’s both a classroom management nightmare and a conduit for teachers to connect with their students—could be on its way out the virtual door if many lawmakers in Washington have their way.

The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a bipartisan bill March 13 that would lead to a nationwide ban of the popular social-media platform if its China-based owner doesn’t sell its stake in the company.

Though the legislation faces an uncertain path, its passage would be welcome news to K-12 administrators weary of a platform that many believe has hurt teens’ self-confidencecatered to short attention spans at the expense of deep thinking, and spread viral challenges urging teens to post videos of themselves eating dangerously spicy chips or destroying school property.

But TikTok has also helped educators connect with their students—and even serves as a go-to professional development resource, particularly for younger and pre-service teachers.

Some teachers “might miss it,” said Jeff Carpenter, a professor of education at Elon University who studies social media in education. “Educators go on TikTok and think: ‘it’s this nice little mix. I get some entertaining stuff. I get something about my hobby. And I get a little something about my professional interest.’”

But many more may be thinking something more like “good riddance,” added Carpenter, a former high school teacher.

“I also think there would be a lot of teachers who would feel like, ‘I’m glad that the government is trying to do something about social media, because I’m concerned about its impact on my students,’” Carpenter said.

Even if a ban is enacted, some educators expect any relief from their social media woes to be short-lived.

“I could see school districts being [glad] we don’t have to try to monitor TikTok,” said Stefanie McKoy, who teaches special education at Branson Junior High in Branson, Mo., and studied the social media platform as a doctoral student.

But she expects that before long, there will be another platform that’s just as irresistible for students—and problematic for schools.

“Something else is just going to come up and move into that void,” McKoy said.

‘They get all their news from TikTok’

Lawmakers primarily had national security—not schools—in mind when they moved to limit the social media site, which is used by more than 170 million Americans.

TikTok is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Chinese technology firm ByteDance Ltd. Lawmakers contend that China’s national security laws give its government the right to demand access to the data of TikTok’s U.S. users, including for intelligence gathering purposes.

TikTok officials have consistently rejected the argument that the platform could be used to aid the Chinese government. TikTok has never shared U.S. user information with Chinese authorities and wouldn’t do so if asked, the company contends.

To date, the U.S. government also has not supplied evidence that TikTok provided data on U.S. users to the Chinese government, the Associated Press reported.

Though the bill passed by a vote of 352-65 in the House, and President Joe Biden has pledged to sign it, its fate in the Senate is unclear.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., denounced the legislation as an attack on free speech protections.

Millions of “Americans use this social media platform to express themselves and if the company is banned … you’re basically taking their First Amendment rights away,” Paul said earlier this month in an interview with NewsNation, a cable news network.

The bipartisan pair of lawmakers who lead the Senate intelligence panel—Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Mark Warner, D-Va.—commended the House bill and urged their Senate colleagues to pass similar legislation.

In advocating for the bill, Warner has referenced the potential for the platform to spread misinformation, especially among youth.

“For many young people, they get all of their news from TikTok, and a slight change in that algorithm—particularly in an election year like this—and you might see come October, that TikTok news is starting to say, ‘Well you know what, Taiwan is really part of China,’” Warner said in a March 19 interview with National Public Radio.

And some lawmakers cited TikTok’s impact on young people’s well-being as among their reasons for supporting the legislation.

“So many teenagers and children [have] seen their mental health harmed by the app,” said Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J. in a statement.

In a video posted on the platform this month, Shou Zi Chew, TikTok’s CEO, said that the company has worked to keep user data secure and to protect the platform from outside manipulation.

If enacted, the legislation would only bolster the influence of a handful of other social media companies, he argued.

“We will not stop fighting and advocating for you. We will continue to do all we can, including exercising our legal rights, to protect this amazing platform that we have built with you,” Chew told TikTok users.

Concerns are ‘not unique to TikTok’

At least thirty-seven states have already taken some action against TikTok—either by banning it on state devices or, in the case of Indiana, suing the company, according to Government Technology, a media and research organization.

But states and the federal government haven’t been nearly as active in trying to limit the power of other social media platforms, experts said.

“A lot of the concerns that arise with TikTok, particularly regarding data sharing, are not necessarily unique to TikTok,” said Amelia Vance, the president of the Public Interest Privacy Center, a nonprofit that works on child and student data privacy issues.

While the potential relationship between the company and the Chinese government has clearly raised eyebrows on Capitol Hill, many of the privacy concerns lawmakers voiced in explaining their support for the bill describe a range of social media platforms, she said.

“There are a lot of questions about why this [legislation] is what moved forward, and not a comprehensive bill that would apply to more than TikTok and address a lot of the data collection, data use and sharing concerns that have been coming up,” including regarding U.S.- based companies such as Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, Vance said.

‘They’re just going to find something else’

The fate of the legislation—and its ultimate impact—may be uncertain, but many educators are sure of one thing: Getting rid of TikTok won’t help teens, who find themselves on the platform almost constantly, unplug.

“If they get rid of it, it’s not like [students] will be like, ‘oh, let’s put the cellphone down. Now we can focus,’” said Joe Harmon, a high school social studies teacher at Redbank Valley High School in New Bethlehem, Pa., who once had 110,000 followers on the platform. He recently took his account private, in part, because he found TikTok too time-consuming.

Trying to roll back the impact of social media on teenagers by threatening the existence of one platform—even an immensely popular one—is like “trying to stop a waterfall by just holding out a cup,” Harmon said.

Harmon has used TikTok to get some teaching tips. But he expects that he will find another site to connect with educators and learn professionally.

“I’m not gonna lose sleep over it,” Harmon said. “And I don’t think the students are either because they’re just gonna find something else.”

His students have already told him that if TikTok goes away, they’ll move onto another platform, such as Instagram Reels, a similar video app. Many have already made the shift, he said.

Or a new platform will spring into being. “Some entrepreneur out there is gonna go ‘here’s my chance,’” Harmon said.