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Biden Signs TikTok Ban Into Law. What That Means for Schools

President Joe Biden signed legislation Wednesday banning TikTok, if its China-based owner doesn’t sell its stake in the company within the next nine months.

But it remains unclear whether the new law will withstand likely legal challenges—and whether getting rid of the popular platform will alleviate educators’ concerns about students’ overuse of social media and its role in disrupting the school environment.

For starters, TikTok won’t suddenly disappear from students’ phones. In fact, if the sale is already in progress by the law’s deadline, TikTok would get an additional three months to complete the process. All told, it would be at least a year before the ban goes into effect.

What’s more, TikTok’s leadership has already pledged to challenge the new law in court. That process could keep the app in legal limbo—and accessible to students—for years to come.

In the past, TikTok has had some success with court challenges. But the company has never sought to prevent federal legislation from going into effect.

Many K-12 educators say TikTok has hurt teens’ self-confidence, catered to short attention spans at the expense of deep thinking, and spread viral challenges urging students to post videos of themselves eating dangerously spicy chips or destroying school property.

In fact, in an informal poll of 177 principals via one of its newsletters, Education Week found that a little more than half of them said a TikTok ban would “make their jobs easier.”

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 the legislation stands, the company isn’t sold, and TikTok is banned in the United States, many teachers expect 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,” said Stefanie McKoy, who teaches special education at Branson Junior High in Branson, Mo., and studied the social media platform as a doctoral student.

‘They get all their news from TikTok’

Biden and members of Congress 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 company 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, company officials contend.

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.

In advocating for the bill, some supporters, including Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., 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 an interview last month 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 shortly after Biden signed the law April 24, Shou Zi Chew, TikTok’s CEO, pledged that the company would launch a legal fight for its independence.

“It’s obviously a disappointing moment, but it doesn’t need to be a defining one,” he said. “Rest assured, we aren’t going anywhere.”

Concerns are ‘not unique to TikTok’

At least 37 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 new law 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 ultimate impact of the legislation 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.

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