Young people’s access to social media continues to be under attack by overreaching politicians. The latest effort, Senator Ted Cruz’s blunt “Eyes on the Board” Act, aims to end social media’s use entirely in schools. This heavy-handed plan to cut federal funding to any school that doesn’t block all social media platforms may have good intentions—like ensuring kids are able to focus on school work when they’re behind a desk—but the ramifications of such a bill would be bleak, and it’s not clear that it would solve any actual problem.
Eyes on the Board would prohibit any school from receiving any federal E-Rate funding subsidies if it also allows access to social media. Schools and libraries that receive this funding are already required to install internet filters; the Children’s Internet Protection Act, or CIPA, requires that these schools must block or filter Internet access to “visual depictions” that are obscene, child pornography, or harmful to minors, as well as requiring the monitoring of the online activities of minors for the same purpose. In return, the E-Rate program subsidizes internet services for schools and libraries in districts with high rates of poverty.
This bill is a brazen attempt to censor information and to control how schools and teachers educate.
First, it’s not clear that there is a problem here that needs fixing. In practice, most schools choose to block much, much more than social media sites. This is a problem—these filters likely stop students from accessing educational information, and many tools flag students for accessing sites that aren’t blocked, endangering their privacy. Some students’ only access to the internet is during school hours, and others’ only internet-capable device is issued by their school, making these website blocks and flags particularly troubling.
So it’s very, very likely that many schools already block social media if they find it disruptive. In our recent research, it was common for schools to do so. And according to the American Library Association’s last “School Libraries Count!” survey, conducted a decade ago, social media platforms were the most likely type of content to be blocked, with 88% of schools reporting that they did so. Again, it’s unclear what problem this bill purports to solve. But it is clear that Congress requiring that schools block social media platforms entirely, by government decree, is far more prohibitive than necessary to keep students’ “eyes on the board.”
In short: too much social media access, via school networks or devices, is not a problem that teachers and administrators need the government to correct. If it is a problem, schools already have the tools to fix it, and twenty years after CIPA, they know generally how to do so. And if a school wants to allow access to platforms that an enormous percentage of students already use—to help guide them on its usage, or teach them about its privacy settings, for example—they should be allowed to do so without risking the loss of federal funding.
Second, the broad scope of this bill would ban any access to a website whose primary purpose is to allow users to communicate user-generated content to the public, including even those that are explicitly educational or designed for young people. Banning students from using any social media, even educational platforms, is a massive overreach.
No senator should consider moving this bill forward.
Third, the bill is also unconstitutional. A government prohibition on accessing a whole category of speech–social media speech, the vast majority of which is fully legal–is a restriction on speech that would be unlikely to survive strict scrutiny under the Supreme Court’s First Amendment precedent. As we have written about other bills that attack young people’s access to content on social media platforms, young people have First Amendment rights to speak online and to access others’ speech, whether via social media or another channel. The Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that states and Congress cannot use concerns about children to ban them from expressing themselves or accessing information, and has ruled that there is no children’s exception to the First Amendment.
Though some senators may see social media as distracting or even dangerous, it can play a useful role in society and young people’s lives. Many protests by young people against police brutality and gun violence have been organized using social media. Half of U.S. adults get news from social media, at least sometimes; likely even more teens get their news this way. Those students in lower-income communities may depend on school devices or school broadband to access valuable information on social media, and for many, this bill amounts to a flatout ban.
People intending to limit access to information are already challenging books in schools and libraries in increasing numbers around the country. The author of this bill, Sen. Cruz, has been involved in these efforts. It is conceivable that challenges of books in schools and libraries could evolve into challenges of websites on the open internet. For now, students and library patrons can and will turn to the internet when books are pulled off shelves.
This bill is a brazen attempt to censor information and to control how schools and teachers educate, and it would harm marginalized communities and children the most. No senator should consider moving this bill forward.