As digital natives, many young people today are quick to adopt en vogue apps and social media platforms, like TikTok, without fully understanding how their personal data is used or what steps they should take to keep themselves safe online.
Now more than ever, schools should be leaning into their educational missions and taking the long-game approach of implementing digital literacy training to help students operate safely and effectively in their uber-connected world (yes, that’s a technology pun). But the potential threats apps like TikTok pose to their digital infrastructure are prompting schools to implement drastic policy measures banning certain technology on school devices and campus WiFi.
So, why are universities banning TikTok? The concern is that China could require TikTok’s China-based parent company, Byte Dance, to share all data associated with the app, providing a direct source of intelligence and ongoing data collection opportunities for US citizens. What’s more – a recent study found that TikTok collects more personal data than most other social media sites. A key difference between TikTok’s usage of data compared to other platforms like YouTube is their use of third-party tracking which allows data tracking beyond what is done on the app itself.
While the impetus of these bans stems from a desire to protect the data and digital infrastructure of the institution (as well as broader national security concerns), compromised data could certainly have an individual-level impact.
Implications for universities
Several unintended consequences could arise from TikTok bans, including an exacerbating effect on the current enrollment crisis as bans would prohibit institutions from using TikTok to connect with an enormous base of current and prospective students. This would also restrict professors from using the platform to show relevant content as a teaching tool and impact the ability of campus-based researchers to study the platform and its impacts. This has direct implications for scholars in the fields of communication and media studies, as well as for critical research efforts around the impact of social media on student mental health.
Making the move to ban TikTok is a big one, and there will be no shortage of pushback and criticism from students. But will the bans have a real impact on student usage? If nothing else, universities that decide to ban TikTok should couple that policy position with meaningful education on “the why.” Regardless of whether or not they agree with or support the decision, college students and employees should be engaging in critical conversations about their personal data and digital footprint.
Ultimately, students will likely still use TikTok–even if just when they’re off of university WiFi–and they’ll potentially be doing it without any education or guidance around how to stay safe and avoid risks.
Digital literacy as a solution
I’m far from an expert on geopolitics, but in our hyperconnected global economy, I cannot imagine TikTok will be the last internationally owned social media platform or technology that poses data security threats at this sort of scale. So, if that’s the nature of the world we live in and the future will only hold a greater proliferation of digital innovation, how are we preparing students and employees to operate safely and effectively in this technified society?
The results of a 2019 Pew research study found that many Americans struggle with even basic digital literacy and cybersecurity concepts. Academia’s very existence is centered around providing knowledge and skills to enhance the lives of students and improve society. Thus, academic leaders should recognize and embrace the need for focused investment in digital education. Banning TikTok on-campus WiFi is merely a stop-gap in a world that requires competent cyber citizens.