The University of Florida’s (UF) decision this week to immediately ban TikTok from its campus networks and college-owned devices is occurring amid broader bipartisan efforts in Florida’s Legislature to limit or prohibit students in public schools from using social media.
UF said it planned to start actively blocking use of TikTok and WeChat, an instant messaging app especially popular among Chinese students, as early as Thursday. Other universities — including Florida State and Florida A&M University — already had similarly banned TikTok and WeChat, responding to a directive last week from the state’s Board of Governors calling the services a data security risk because their parent companies were based in China.
It wasn’t immediately clear how or when UF would penalize violators caught bypassing the university’s blocks. UF had warned students in January it was strongly discouraging the use of TikTok and recommended students and faculty delete the app.
The latest moves track closely with bills moving through Florida’s Capitol to effectively ban TikTok for all public employers, including state and local government agencies, public schools, colleges and universities and more. It would prohibit installing TikTok on a government-issued device or accessing TikTok over a government network, such as office or school WiFi networks.
A bill in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Danny Burgess, a Zephyrhills Republican, is scheduled for a floor vote Tuesday. The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Carolina Amesty, an Orlando Republican, is moving more slowly.
Meanwhile, other measures proposed by lawmakers would crack down on a broader number of social media services. Burgess sponsored another bill, which would require teachers to warn students about the social, emotional and physical effects of social media; prohibit students from using social media during classroom instruction; and require schools to block social media on their networks.
“These kids are walking around with a live digital hand grenade, and we’re not educating them on the safe use of it,” Burgess said.
The House voted 110-0 last week to pass a companion bill, sponsored by Rep. Brad Yeager, a New Port Richey Republican.
Under those bills, classroom lessons would change based on grade level but cover kindergarten through 12th grade. Students below sixth grade would learn about internet safety, injury prevention and personal health. Lessons for older students would include how social media manipulates behavior, the spreading of misinformation and dating violence.
Students in high school would also learn how to use social media to their advantage with lessons on research skills, creating a digital resume and exploring career pathways.
Sen. Rosalind Osgood, a Tamarac Democrat, who co-sponsored the bill with Burgess, said the lessons will help keep kids safe.
Republicans have decried what they described as restrictions by technology companies to win support among conservative voters.
Social media companies have long been the target of Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature, which passed a bill DeSantis signed in 2021 requiring large social media companies to publish standards that described how they decided to “censor, deplatform and shadow ban.” It also allowed Florida residents to sue social media companies for up to $100,000 if they feel they were treated unfairly.
Federal courts overturned most parts of the law, saying it was an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment, and DeSantis has asked the Supreme Court to intercede.
Republicans’ efforts to crack down on social media platforms also are occurring amid the party’s efforts to improve its allure among young voters, who are the most active users on social media and who generally identify as progressives.
Another current bill, sponsored by Reps. Michele Rayner-Goolsby, a St. Petersburg Democrat, and Tyler Sirois, a Merritt Island Republican, would require social media platforms to provide disclaimers about “addictive features” and would not allow schools to use social media for educational purposes.
Rayner-Goolsby said companies would have to disclose harassment policies and show ZIP code-based resources for traumatic topics that may be seen on social media, such as domestic abuse.
As users log in, minors would have to be shown a disclaimer about how social media can be addictive and harmful to their mental health. It would also describe how the app might collect a user’s personal data “to further manipulate your viewable content,” according to the bill.
Large social media companies already have compliance statements, and having more disclaimers won’t protect children, said Chris Marchese, director of litigation for NetChoice, a trade association representing leading technology companies, including TikTok, Twitter, Google and Meta.
Marchese said educating children on risks would be more helpful than a disclaimer children could ignore. He said NetChoice supports social media safety lessons in schools but opposes banning social media for educational purposes.
“What we should be teaching young people is just because these bad things could happen doesn’t mean they have to happen, and here are some additional steps that you can take to protect yourself,” he said.
Engaging with young people is challenging, said Jonte Lee, a fifth-grade science teacher at Whittier Elementary School in Washington.
When the COVID-19 pandemic started, he needed a platform for teaching with which students were already familiar. Lee turned his home kitchen into a chemistry classroom and posted his “kitchen chemistry” lessons on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. He has more than 5,000 followers on Instagram, where he posted his lessons using Instagram reels.
“I needed a way to reach students and reach them where they are,” Lee said. “They all use TikTok, YouTube and Instagram, so I needed to use social media.”
Social media helped connect his students with others from around the country, he said. Lee warned banning social media use in schools wouldn’t be effective since children will log back on once they leave for the day.
“These policies and laws are so restricted because legislators don’t fully understand the technology,” he said. “Most legislators don’t even pronounce TikTok correctly.”
Social media safety should be taught at all grade levels, said Jamie Kschonz, a parent and teacher at Calusa Elementary in Boca Raton. She said some of her special needs students could be vulnerable to dangerous situations on social media.
In an AP psychology class, Addison Barno, a junior at Freedom High in Tampa, was assigned to care for a pretend infant and post pictures of her pretending to feed it as updates on Instagram. Barno, 16, said the lesson interested her because she is an avid Instagram user.
Her high school already blocks social media during classroom hours, but Barno said students use virtual private networks that can bypass such blocks.
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at [email protected]. You can donate to support our students here.