Legislature unanimously passes bill restricting social media, student phone use in school

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A bill banning TikTok, Snapchat, Twitter and other social media platforms on public school devices and requiring schools to teach kids about the perils of the internet is now primed for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature.

The Senate voted 39-0 in favor of the measure (HB 379), which by July 1 will mandate public school districts to block access to social media on school-provided Wi-Fi and adopt a safety policy that addresses access to the internet by minors.

Students would still be able to access social media sites using their own phones, tablets, laptops and mobile plans; however, the bill prohibits using devices during class time unless it’s for educational purposes as directed by a teacher.

The bill also directs the Department of Education to develop new curricula on social media safety for grades 6-12 on its social, emotional and physical effects, as well as its dangers, and make the materials available to the public and parents.

It explicitly bans the use of TikTok “or any successor application or service” on school devices or as a platform to communicate or promote school-sponsored events, clubs or sports teams.

Those provisions, combined, will go a long way toward addressing a “pervasive problem” so ubiquitous that even those who deliberately work to avoid it have trouble doing so, said Zephyrhills Republican Sen. Danny Burgess, who carried the measure’s Senate companion (SB 52).

“This may be the most important bill that I feel I get to pass as a legislator and a father, somebody who like many of us wakes up every day concerned with not just the world as we see it but the accessibility that’s in the palm of our hand with these little, live hand grenades,” he said, referring to cell phones.

“Kids are losing their innocence at a younger and younger age in large part because of what they see just by looking at their phone and what might pop up before their eyes even if they’re not intentionally wanting to see it. You can’t unwind that clock and you can’t take that back or un-ring that bell.”

Sixty-nine percent of kids own cell phones by age 12, and 95% of teenagers have access to social media. While youths are mostly positive about social media, 45% at least sometimes feel emotionally overwhelmed by it.

Pew researchers found that 67% of teens who are online “almost constantly” have been cyberbullied. Most (90%) believe online harassment is a problem for their age group.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death of adolescents and young adults in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health, which funded research last year that found teens who experience cyberbullying are four times as likely to report thoughts of suicide and attempts as those who don’t.

Florida has the third-most human trafficking cases in America, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which identified 6,168 cases in the state since its inception. And a 2021 Nova Southeastern University study confirmed that young social media users are more at risk of human trafficking victimization.

“This bill is the first step to disconnect kids from their devices at school and also create a focused learning environment for our children in the classroom,” New Port Richey Republican Rep. Brad Yeager, the House sponsor, said before it passed 110-0 March 31.

“Research also shows an increase in performance in the classroom when these devices are removed from the students. And the strong indication in this — and what is awesome — is that the performance of low achievers increases twice as much as high achievers when you remove a mobile device from a student’s hand (while they’re in class), so we’re going to bring low achievers … up twice as much.”

There is also data that support claims to the contrary. One report published last year by the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that while phones in the classroom hurt student test scores and information retention, prohibiting the devices negatively impacts student behavior and the perception of school safety.

Tamarac Democratic Sen. Rosalind Osgood, a Broward County School Board member from 2012 to 2022 and one of the measure’s many bipartisan co-sponsors, said she believes the changes it brings will “save the lives of thousands and thousands of young people.”

“Being in a school environment for the last nine and a half years and seeing the fights that take place, (I know how) social media has become a major, major distraction,” she said. “For me, this bill is one of the best pieces of legislation that we’re bringing forth this Session.”

Earlier this month, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis described TikTok as “digital fentanyl” and a “major security risk.” The China-headquartered company, which has come under scrutiny for potentially spying on American users and gathering their data, is the subject of an ongoing Justice Department investigation.

On March 29, the State Board of Governors, which oversees Florida’s 12 public universities and colleges, adopted a rule banning the platform and four other China-affiliated technologies and apps from all institution-owned devices and on school Wi-Fi networks.

Burgess is also sponsoring a related measure (SB 258) that would codify and expand an executive order DeSantis signed last year banning TikTok on government devices.

That bill and its House analog (HB 563) by Orlando Republican Rep. Carolina Amesty both made it through the committee process and now await floor votes.