Why are universities banning TikTok? Campuses are limiting use on school devices and Wi-Fi

Leon Ondieki earns a living filming and posting TikTok videos on college campuses. He built up his following just before he enrolled at the University of Georgia and has amassed 2.1 million follwers – which helped pay for his tuition and a car.

As a growing number of universities ban the wildly popular social media platform on school-owned devices and networks, Ondieki is adapting, posting on YouTube Shorts and Snapchat Spotlight. Now taking a gap year, he outfitted the sprinter van for his upcoming tour with Starlink, a broadband internet service, and a hot spot so he doesn't have to rely on campus Wi-Fi.

"For any content creator who's in school, I can see how this would be frustrating, especially considering that some content creators have made a lot of money for their schools," he said, pointing to high-profile athletes like Olympic gold medalist Sunisa Lee, who competes for Auburn University – which has banned the app – and who has more than 1.6 million TikTok followers

The University of Texas at Austin this week became one of the latest to announce it is restricting access to TikTok. Universities in Texas, Oklahoma and Georgia also are among those limiting access and shutting down official university accounts. The colleges often cite recent state and federal level bans when taking action.

The bans come after more than 30 states have issued varying TikTok bans, Congress banned TikTok from most government-issued devices, and the U.S. armed forces banned the app on military devices.

Experts say that although the measures don't fully bar TikTok, they can inhibit faculty’s research, teaching and ability to connect with students.

Which schools have banned TikTok?

  • Alabama: Auburn University announced last month that users will not be able to access TikTok on university internet services after Gov. Kay Ivey banned its use on state-owned devices. New posts on university-affiliated TikTok accounts will be allowed, just not using university Wi-Fi, spokesperson Preston Sparks told USA TODAY.

  • Arkansas: Arkansas State University chief communication officer Bill Smith told KATV TikTok is no longer available for students using university Wi-Fi, saying school officials "feel compelled to go along with what's requested of us from the state government."

  • Georgia: The University System of Georgia banned TikTok on devices owned by the system and its 26 universities and colleges. Chancellor Sonny Perdue said in a memo that students, faculty and staff can still use TikTok on devices owned by university-related foundations if they don't access personal information or sensitive information related to university business. 

  • Idaho: To comply with Gov. Brad Little's executive order in december, officials at Idaho State University blocked TikTok on its networks, asked employees to remove the app from state-owned devices and deactivated its official TikTok account, spokesperson Emily Frandsen said. Student organizations can still run TikTok accounts, she said. TikTok has been banned from state-owned devices at the University of Idaho, but personally owned devices can still use TikTok "on student or guest networks," according to the school's technical support page. Boise State University notified students and faculty of a similar ban in December, The Idaho Statesman reported.

  • Iowa: The Iowa Board of Regents directed the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa to remove TikTok from all school-owned devices and stop using school-owned TikTok accounts in December.

  • Montana: All 16 schools under in the Montana University System must remove TikTok from all school-owned devices, block the app from campus Wi-Fi and deactivate all official school accounts, according to a directive from the commissioner of higher education. But schools may provide exceptions for approved educational or research purposes.

  • Oklahoma: In December, Oklahoma State University, The University of Central Oklahoma and the University of Oklahoma implemented similar bans on TikTok. But after learning Gov. Kevin Stitt's order does not apply to public universities, the University of Oklahoma is reviewing TikTok security concerns and has "paused changes to university-administered accounts until the completion of our review," spokesperson Jacob Guthrie told USA TODAY.

  • In South Dakota: The executive director of the South Dakota Board of Regents said in December that state universities will obey the governor's TikTok ban on state devices and will delete TikTok accounts, The South Dakota Searchlight reported.

  • Texas: The University of Texas at Austin recently removed TikTok from all government-issued devices and blocked access to TikTok on its networks to comply with a directive in December from Gov. Greg Abbott, according to a statement from Jeff Neyland, adviser to the president for technology strategy. The University of Houston System scanned more than 20,000 university-owned devices and removed TikTok from the six where it was found, spokesperson Shawn Lindsey told USA TODAY. Texas A&M University also restricted access to TikTok from state-owned devices and is in the process of blocking access to the app on campus Wi-Fi, spokesperson Laylan Copelin said.

Why ban TikTok?

TikTok is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, and some worry that it could share sensitive data with the Chinese government. FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress in November that he is “extremely concerned” China could weaponize data collected through the app.

Higher education institutions are being cautious because they could lose public funding or be sued if there's a majority security breach, said Vanessa Dennen, professor of instructional systems and learning technologies at Florida State University, which has no ban.

"Personnel data, student data, our research data – the protection of data is something that we're highly concerned with," Dennen said. "There seems to be sufficient reasonable concern from a data security issue or standpoint and it's not unusual for universities to have this kind of a concern."

Do TikTok bans work?

The restrictions do not erase TikTok from campus, Dennen said: Users can still access the app on personal devices using cellular data.

University of Texas at Austin professors Natalie Stroud and Samuel Woolley questioned whether the ban will have the intended security effect given staff are able to access university systems on their personal devices as well.

"It's unclear to me what the specific threat is of potential data gathered by the Chinese government," Woolley added.

How will the bans affect students and faculty?

For Stroud and Woolley, part of the university's Center for Media Engagement, the ban means they'll no longer be able to share information with students through the center's TikTok channel or share videos in classes. They said the ban will keep them from being able to effectively teach and research disinformation, misinformation and other forms of propaganda spreading on TikTok.

"If you're not able to relate to them with a communication medium that many of them use frequently, that's a significant handicap," Stroud said.

University faculty and staff also use the app to recruit students and engage with the school community and athletic fans.

"It isn't just the research," Dennen said. "It is the marketing of the universities, of the institutions that would be affected."

Sixty-seven percent of U.S. teenagers say they use TikTok, according to the Pew Research Center. But Dennen said she doesn't believe the bans will have a major impact on most students.

"People will have their workarounds, and their workarounds are not going to be tremendously difficult or cumbersome," Dennen said.

UT Austin professors: Why the TikTok ban needs university exemptions

How has TikTok responded to the bans?

The company is "disappointed" by the recent state-level bans, Jamal Brown, a spokesperson for TikTok, told USA TODAY.

"We're disappointed that so many states are jumping on the political bandwagon to enact policies that will do nothing to advance cybersecurity in their states and are based on unfounded falsehoods about TikTok," Brown said. "We're especially sorry to see the unintended consequences of these rushed policies beginning to impact universities' ability to share information, recruit students, and build communities around athletic teams, student groups, campus publications, and more."

Dig deeper

  • Banning TikTok? Restrictions on the popular video app are spreading across the US

  • Here's what we know: Congress OKs TikTok ban, $1.7 trillion spending plan with Ukraine aid

  • Is TikTok the new Google? Why TikTok is Gen Z's favorite search engine

  • The power of social media: TikToker uses massive reach to track down racist, homophobic suspects, tries to keep mob in check

Contributing: The Associated Press

Contact Breaking News Reporter N'dea Yancey-Bragg at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @NdeaYanceyBragg

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why TikTok bans have spread onto college campuses in multiple states

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