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The Impact of TikTok Bans on U.S. Universities

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Sara Anderson
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US universities and public colleges are banning TikTok, with what seems like a different institution announcing a ban almost weekly.

TikTok launched only seven years ago, yet Insider Intelligence predicts that in 2023, there will be 834.3 million monthly users globally. In fact, 67% of U.S. teenagers say they use TikTok according to Pew Research.

So why have over 30 colleges and universities banned this popular platform? 

And more importantly, what does this mean for student recruitment and already declining student enrolments? 

Bans begin

In December 2022, after FBI director Chris Wray raised security concerns, TikTok was banned on federal government devices. Since then, 27 states have ramped up their efforts to limit or restrict access to the app by prohibiting it from state-owned devices, according to Business Insider. 

Soon after, several public colleges and universities banned the app from their servers or wireless networks. In some cases, students, faculty members, staff, or visitors cannot access the app from school-owned devices or campus Wi-Fi networks.  

With around 75,000 students, Texas A&M is one of the largest public universities in the country and TikTok has been completely banned. There are no exceptions. Even their TAMU Physics & Astronomy TikTok account, with over 1.5 million followers, migrated its content to YouTube. 

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All schools that have enacted a full or partial ban have similar policies for banning the app. Yet some universities are trying to tread carefully in the political and legal waters to implement bans that won't impact students and faculty. 

New policies in place

TikTok has been used extensively by athletic departments and student-run clubs to promote their victories, contests, and events; some students exclusively use it to keep up with campus life. For many, the app is a way to connect with campus and see student life in action.

That's why universities like the Montana University System are considering adding policies that would address issues with these accounts. The app was banned on January 20 under the direction of the state's Commissioner of Higher Education. 

Helen Thigpen, public affairs director from the Montana University System stated, "We are considering providing additional direction for existing accounts and recognize that MUS campuses and student groups may have content they want to retain, and we are working through that process."  

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Student reactions

If the goal is to discourage students from using the app, banning it from campus devices and Wi-Fi is unlikely to have any effect - but it depends on who you ask.

Many students can easily switch from the university's Wi-Fi to their own mobile data with one click. They can access the app in other ways, and they don't consider TikTok a security threat or think its data collection is more egregious than that of other apps.

A junior at Auburn University, Elizabeth Hunt, has been quoted saying: "I am a little annoyed that now anytime I want to get on the app, I'm going to have to use data and find ways around it.”

Some find it a nuisance, while other students have accepted their university's decision, like Etta Carpenter, a senior at the University of Texas - Austin. 

"In today's day and age, social media is a really big part of how the younger generation connects and it makes me sad that some will miss out on that," said Carpender. "I think that the University is making it very clear that it is a government decision and it's just a policy the university has to abide by."

At the same university, others see it differently. Grace Featherson expressed political frustration stating, "It's the choice of U.S. citizens, whether they want to consume TikTok and whether they want to take that risk."

Yet for some whose access to TikTok has become more difficult, their irritation goes beyond politics to the simple inability to use the app.

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"I didn't think Texas public universities banning TikTok would have that much effect on me, but I've tried to open TikTok 3 times in the past 2 hours and she's just…gone," wrote Texas A&M student Sidney Golden on Twitter.

Students are not the only ones affected. TikTok's simple interface and popularity make it a faculty favorite as an education tool.

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

How do the bans affect student recruitment?

Admission offices have created accounts to attract and recruit students. Now they are wondering what this means for the future of their established TikTok accounts, and what it implies for the university.

In terms of helping potential students learn more about the university, TikTok is the least beneficial according to Keystone Education Group’s 2022 State of Recruitment report. In comparison to TikTok (1%), respondents indicated that Instagram (30%), Facebook (28%), and LinkedIn (18%) were more useful in the decision process.

Although TikTok may be banned on university Wi-Fi and networks, a workaround always exists. This means more campaigns and a stronger push on other platforms for admissions might be required. 

As frustrating as it may be, students will need to use some creativity, alternative platforms, or perhaps more of their data if they want to stay on TikTok. 

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