The Hill

Feds Should Be Funding Teaching, Not TikTok

Legal Fellow, Center for the Economics of the Internet
Senior Fellow and Director, Center for the Economics of the Internet
Children using computers in the classroom. (Chris Ryan via Getty Images)

To borrow a phrase from 1990s punk rock, the kids are not alright.

After being forced to live and learn remotely for nearly three years, the “COVID generation,” as it’s now referred to, continues to struggle. Students today are easily distracted and chronically absent. Mathreading and history test scores are at their lowest point in decades. The average ACT score has just hit a 30-year low

In addition, teen eating disorders are at record levels. Other mental health issues, including rates of depression and suicide, abound

While there are countless issues driving these trends, childhood social media use is likely a major culprit. According to a recent Gallup poll, American teens spend nearly five hours per day on social media platforms. Of these, YouTube, TikTok and Instagram alone account for nearly 70 percent of all usage. 

Regardless of the choice of app, there are only so many hours in a day. Every moment a teen is distracted by Instagram or TikTok is time he isn’t using to study, pay attention in class, pursue athletics or other after-school activities, or socialize with friends and family members in the real world. And although some social media content is educational, the vast majority of it is not.

Even worse, in far too many instances, viral online “challenges” prove fatal.

During the academic year, most teens spend much if not most of their waking hours at school.  Despite bans in most schools, many teens find ways to use their smartphones to text and post throughout the school day. And for those who do abide by phone restrictions, there’s always school-provided tablets, laptops or Chromebooks. Some school Wi-Fi networks block these websites, but many do not. The end result? Computers and networks funded by federal, state and local tax dollars harm, rather than help, kids’ ability to learn in the classroom.

One might think that in the face of such unprecedented distraction and generational hardship, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would do well to curtail access to social media in schools. Instead, it has done the opposite, introducing a proposal that would allow federal broadband funds to be used for Wi-Fi hotspots on school buses. 

While the prospect of some students being able to complete homework on the bus ride home might be laudable, the reality is that much or even most of that mobile bandwidth would be strangled by students using media-rich apps such as TikTok and YouTube. Moreover, the proposal appears to violate the clear text of the Communications Act.

In all, more than $2 billion in federal funds were distributed to schools and libraries last year.  The FCC could easily require schools receiving these funds to implement content-filtering systems that would block students’ access to TikTok and the like. To date, they have declined to do so.

Fortunately, Congress also has a say. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Ted Budd (R-N.C.) and Shelley Moore-Capito (R-W.Va.) recently introduced a bill called the Eyes on the Board Act, which would condition schools’ access to federal broadband funds on implementing systems that block access to social media and similarly distracting websites on school networks. 

The bill would also require schools receiving E-Rate funds to adopt policies outlining the amount of screen time that may be assigned to students both inside the classroom and at home via homework assignments.

Such requirements are consistent with existing federal law. Section 230 is particularly instructive here. Although the statute is mainly known for its twin liability protections for websites that host or remove third-party content, it also states that it is federal policy “to encourage the development of technologies which maximize user control over what information is received by individuals, families, and schools who use the internet and other interactive computer services.” 

Section 230 similarly says that it is federal policy “to remove disincentives for the development and utilization of blocking and filtering technologies that empower parents to restrict their children’s access to objectionable or inappropriate online material.”

Those policy objectives are precisely what Cruz’s bill would support.

Read in The Hill.