Ed-Tech Policy

TikTok Is Raising National Security, Privacy Concerns. Should Educators Steer Clear?

By Alyson Klein — March 22, 2023 7 min read
The icon for TikTok pictured in New York on Feb. 25, 2020.
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TikTok, the social media video app, can engage students on difficult academic topics or inspire them to steal school fire extinguishers.

But, now, on a much more serious note, the wildly popular platform has become a big national security concern that could get it banned in the United States.

Two-thirds of American teenagers use TikTok, which is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company. One in six teens surveyed by the Pew Research Center say that they are on the platform “almost constantly.”

Recently, the Biden administration told ByteDance to sell TikTok to a U.S. company or face a possible, nationwide ban. Former President Donald Trump tried to take similar action in 2020.

There’s bipartisan legislation pending in Congress that would enable the Biden administration to restrict technology companies from six countries that have adversarial relationships with the United States from doing business in the country: China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and Venezuela. Shou Chew, TikTok’s CEO, is slated to testify before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23.

Some critics of the movement to ban TikTok argue that when it comes to data collection, student privacy, and influencing U.S. citizens’ opinions of their government, TikTok doesn’t pose any greater threat than American social media companies such as Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.

Schools have a stake in what happens to TikTok, in large part, because it is so popular with teens, but also because plenty of educators are on the platform too. What’s more, the discussion going on in Washington offers an excellent “teachable moment” for talking to students about the risks social media poses and how to navigate them, experts say.

Here’s what you should know about TikTok, the privacy concerns surrounding it, and the big question of whether educators and students should continue using the platform:

How is TikTok used in schools?

TikTok is a big part of teens’ social lives. And about a quarter of students use the app for homework help, according to a survey last year by the online learning platform study.com.

There are a fair number of educators on the app too. In fact, 19 percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders say they are on TikTok more often since Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter last year, according to a survey of 1,058 educators conducted in late January and early February by the EdWeek Research Center.

Fans of TikTok say it’s a good teaching tool. For instance, one school librarian created a TikTok explaining to students how to cite sources in research papers. Teachers have given students the option of creating a TikTok—or TikTok-style video—to show their understanding of material covered in class.

Other educators use it to form connections with their students, sometimes making a cameo appearance in student videos. Some school districts have TikTok accounts to share information with families and the public. And a few educators have developed a lucrative side-hustle as TikTok influencers.

Despite this rising use of the platform, more than half of educators—53 percent—who use TikTok say they aren’t aware of their school’s policies regarding the platform, according to a forthcoming report by researchers at Elon University, the University of the Redlands, and Northern Arizona University. The researchers surveyed 415 educators, reached through social media.

Nearly another quarter said they weren’t aware of how TikTok makes money; about a third said they weren’t aware of how their data is used on the platform; and more than 1 of every 5 said they weren’t aware of ethical challenges for educators associated with use of the platform.

“Participants admitted at quite high levels that they don’t understand much about how the sausage is made at TikTok,” said Jeff Carpenter, a professor of education at Elon University, former teacher, and one of the authors of the report. “They’re using TikTok for professional purposes, but they’re not really clear on whether their school or school district has policies. They don’t really understand what TikTok does with their data. It was just kind of an interesting combination.”

What’s the national security risk with TikTok?

Policymakers worry that users’ personal data—name, credit card information, even biometric data such as faces and voices—could wind up in the hands of the Chinese government, which has broad authority to force Chinese-owned companies to turn over information for national security purposes.

It’s unclear and potentially troubling how some of the data collected now, particularly the biometrics, could be used in the future, said Amelia Vance, president of the Public Interest Privacy Center, an organization housed at AASA, The School Superintendents Association.

What’s more, TikTok’s algorithm suggests videos to users. That could give the platform an avenue to influence an overwhelming number of people’s views on key issues or suppress videos critical of the Chinese government.

One red flag: ByteDance employees obtained personal data on reporters who had written stories critical of TikTok that relied in part on internal company documents. The employees involved were ultimately fired. The Justice Department is investigating.

What should educators on TikTok do in response to security concerns?

It is not necessarily time to get off TikTok, experts said. It’s fine to ask students to make a TikTok video to demonstrate their understanding of a particular concept, as long as it’s optional, not a requirement, Vance said.

And school districts don’t necessarily have to stop using TikTok—or other platforms—to communicate with families and their communities.

“Obviously, it’s positive to reach parents and students where they are,” and many are on social media, Vance said.

It’s also a good idea for teachers to become familiar with their school or district policies regarding use of the platform, said Joe Harmon, a Pennsylvania social studies teacher who has become something of a TikTok celebrity.

Educators using TikTok as part of their work “should be very cognizant of what their administration allows. Don’t try to circumvent school policy,” Harmon said in an email. “Do not film during education time. Don’t include students in the videos. Don’t use any information that would reveal private student information whatsoever.”

Harmon, who doesn’t even reveal the name of the school he works at in his videos, feels he has a responsibility to ensure that anything he puts on the platform is something “I’d be comfortable seeing on a bulletin board in Times Square.”

Is TikTok much worse than other social media platforms when it comes to privacy and national security?

Not really, some experts said.

“It’s not a U.S. company, and the U.S. is embroiled in geopolitical political conflict with China, which is a big and meaningful thing,” Carpenter said. But he added, “I’ve not seen a convincing enough argument that TikTok is so much worse than those other channels that it alone should be banned.”

David Sallay, the director of youth and education policy at the nonprofit Future of Privacy Forum, had a similar take.

“If I were a school administrator, I’d be equally concerned about [any] social media platforms teachers are using” if they include student information, he said.

There is also evidence that other social media companies have allowed misinformation to flourish, including Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram. In fact, thousands of pages of internal documents released in 2021 by a whistleblower showed the company had done extensive research on the negative impact of its social media platforms on children’s mental health and the spread of false information, but failed to act on any of those findings.

So far, there’s been no move to ban Meta’s products, even though the U.S. has more regulatory authority over American-owned companies.

“If this country is serious about addressing issues of social media, I would like to see them do that with U.S. companies also, that are probably far more impactful on our lives and our data,” said Dan Krutka, an associate professor of social studies education at the University of North Texas and a founder of the Civics of Technology Project.

How can teachers use the debate over TikTok’s future in class discussions?

The action in Washington and elsewhere is a great opportunity for educators to talk to students about what drives social media, how it impacts their lives as individuals, and its effect on society, said Krutka, a former social studies teacher.

“This can be an educational moment for everyone,” he said. “I’m here for the critical thinking about TikTok. But just limiting it to one company seems to be misguided.”

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