IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Florida’s K-12 Social Media Ban Garners Mixed Reactions

Public education researchers and policymakers are weighing the pros and cons of Florida House Bill 379, which took effect July 1. The other 49 states will be watching closely when classes resume next month.

With most Florida schools out of session for about another month, it’s too soon to measure what effects, if any, Florida House Bill 379 has had on teachers and students. Education researchers and policymakers, meanwhile, offer different viewpoints on whether the legislation should become a model for other states to follow.

The law, which took effect July 1, essentially bans students from accessing social media in public schools unless expressly directed to do so by a teacher for educational purposes, and it requires the Florida Department of Education to publish a social media awareness curriculum for all public schools. The law identified the advantages of social media use in schools as career- and resume-building for future academic or employment opportunities, sharing information with family and friends, and safely connecting with other users with similar interests. The identified risks include social media addiction, publication of misinformation, negative effects on mental health, and the permanent nature of content posted to social media.

Julie Evans, CEO of the nonprofit research organization Project Tomorrow and founder of its Speak Up research project, said the legislation, though well intended, will do more harm than good. Through the Speak Up initiative, the organization has surveyed about 75,000 individuals in the K-12 communities across the United States annually since 2003, from which it concluded that the pros of social media use in schools far outweigh the cons.

“There is a high degree of concern for social, emotional and mental health, and people are looking for what is causing that,” Evans said in an interview with Government Technology. “But it could be other things — things other than social media — as well. With an outright ban, you’re sort of throwing out the baby with the bath water.”

Evans said she thinks the Florida law is based on only negative outcomes of social media use and “mythology and anecdotes that get amplified.” It is written from the point of view of how adults use social media and ignores research that found social media is an effective tool for students to form communities, learn more about the world around them in engaging ways, and become content creators, rather than just consumers.

She likened technology restrictions in schools to book bans.

“Kids think it’s hysterical because they can access the book that was pulled from their library online,” Evans said. “It’s not something that’s going away.”

Still, Evans said the second part of the Florida law, which calls for a social media curriculum, is, in theory, a good idea. There is a need for schools and parents to discuss the use of social media in schools as well as in the home, with the greater goal of helping students to become media-literate digital citizens.

“We are teaching them [students] how to be safe online, but not how to discern bias or propaganda, or how to discern what’s accurate,” Evans said. “We’re not doing a good job yet in teaching that.”

Evans noted that the COVID-19 pandemic, which transformed remote learning, exacerbated the disconnect between parents and schools. On short notice, schools had to make massive investments in technology to include some social media platforms. But the post-pandemic conversations about the additional tools students were using rarely took place.

“They [schools] made assumptions that the parents understood,” Evans said. “What parents might not know is, what is the learning purpose of using technology.”

Edward Longe, director of the Center for Technology and Innovation at the Florida-based James Madison Institute think tank, said HB 379 passed with strong bipartisan support and no pushback from social media companies. He said the measure is “good for consumers, and individual rights principles.”

“The long-term benefits are there,” he said during an interview with Government Technology.

Like Evans, Longe emphasized that social media is never going away and that banning something is pointless when people are always going to find ways around it. But he stressed that the law does not infringe on private lives; it only looks out for the best interests of public education in terms of child safety and the quality of instruction.

“In an educational setting, social media can be a distraction. Focus on learning from a teacher is a good thing,” Longe said. “But what they [students] do in their private lives, that’s between them and their parents.”

Longe also noted that the legislation gives educators some degree of discretion with social media. YouTube, for example, can be a useful tool if the videos are used to supplement instruction, but if the user signs onto their YouTube account to comment on videos or post their own content, that would constitute prohibited social media use.

While most of the policy written at James Madison Institute remains in Florida, Longe said HB 379 is an example of state-level privacy reform that other states should follow.

In January, months before the Florida bill was signed into law, the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University published a report of recommendations for policymakers about social media. But instead of calling for any restrictions on youth social media use, it suggested the following:

  • Allocate more law enforcement money at the federal, state and local levels to combat illegal content on social media sites.
  • Give companies more time to report illegal content.
  • Encourage social media companies to better educate parents and teachers on how to help teens who are victimized by social media use.
  • Encourage more studies on the mental health impacts of social media use.
  • Do not vilify entities that actively study social media use issues or companies that want to develop safe apps and services for teens.
“Technology can play a helpful role, but there is no one technological solution or specific combination of technological solutions to the problem of online safety for minors,” the report said. “Instead, a combination of technologies, in concert with parental oversight, education, social services, law enforcement, and sound policies by social network sites and service providers may assist in addressing specific problems that minors face online.”
Aaron Gifford has several years of professional writing experience, primarily with daily newspapers and specialty publications in upstate New York. He attended the University at Buffalo and is based in Cazenovia, NY.