Destini Ambus, a senior at Auburn University in Alabama, was so surprised last month about a new ban of TikTok on state-owned devices and internet networks that she read the news alert about it aloud to her friends.
“We were like, ‘Oh, that’s weird, why would she do that,’ and laughed it off and moved on,” Ms. Ambus, 21, the editor in chief of the campus newspaper, said of the ban, which was ordered by the state’s governor, Kay Ivey. “It didn’t really occur to me when I saw that first email that it would be something that impacts me directly.”
That realization would come a few days later, when Auburn’s administration said that it would ban TikTok from campus Wi-Fi networks, joining several other public universities that have recently enacted similar restrictions.
The campus restrictions have come as 19 governors have banned the video app, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, from state-owned devices and networks in the past month and a half. The governors have declared such restrictions while negotiations continue to drag on between TikTok and the Biden administration, which is concerned that the popular app poses a national security risk by possibly giving the Chinese government an ability to surveil users.
Unlike the general state bans, though, the college prohibition brings that geopolitical fight front and center for TikTok’s biggest fans — young Americans. Two-thirds of teenagers in the United States use the app, making it second in popularity only to YouTube among that age group, according to the Pew Research Center.
The ban has left students at Auburn surprised and bemused, they said in conversations with The New York Times, especially because they are still able to access TikTok by switching to their data plans on their phones. Most seem prepared to work around it. But there is also change underway: The campus television station said that it would probably delete its nascent TikTok account, for example.
“Me and my friends have been talking about it ever since we first found out,” said Elizabeth Hunt, a 20-year-old Auburn junior from Birmingham, Ala., who lives on campus as a resident adviser. “I am a little annoyed that now anytime I want to get on the app, I’m going to have to use data and find ways around it.”
Colleges in Idaho, including Boise State University, and the University of Oklahoma recently said that TikTok was banned from their campus Wi-Fi networks. Some, like Idaho State University, went so far as to deactivate its official TikTok account. And more changes could be ahead: Gov. Greg Gianforte of Montana asked the Montana University System to stop allowing TikTok on its networks in a Jan. 3 letter, citing security risks.
In an email to students last week, just before Auburn’s 25,000 students returned from winter break, the school reiterated its ban and its effort “to protect valuable information and to reduce the possible cybersecurity threats associated with using TikTok.” But it also reminded students that they could still use the app on their personal or even Auburn-provided devices as long as they’re using their own cellular service. And the official Auburn Tigers TikTok account, which has 101,000 followers, remains active, though it has not posted since Dec. 2.
Auburn administrators declined interview requests for this article.
TikTok said that it was dismayed by the restrictions. “We’re disappointed that so many states are jumping on the political bandwagon to enact policies that will do nothing to advance cybersecurity in their states and are based on unfounded falsehoods about TikTok,” said Jamal Brown, a spokesman for TikTok.
“We’re especially sorry to see the unintended consequences of these rushed policies beginning to impact public universities’ ability to share information, recruit students and build communities around athletic teams, student groups, campus publications and more,” Mr. Brown added.
Students at Auburn say that TikTok is a form of entertainment — but it is also woven into campus life, with people using its short-form videos to highlight the school’s football team, sorority recruitment and occasional shopping trends.
Braden Haynes, a 22-year-old senior and station manager of Eagle Eye TV, the student-run television station, said that the station would probably just use Instagram Reels going forward. “We could use cellular data and post on it or have someone post from their apartment, but at the end of the day I think it’s too much work than it’s worth,” she said.
Ansley Franco, a 21-year-old senior from Augusta, Ga., said that when she was in a sorority at Auburn, TikTok became a key way for Greek organizations on college campuses to promote themselves, especially as rush and #RushTok became a national sensation at the school’s rival, the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. (The University of Alabama has not announced a ban of TikTok; representatives for the university didn’t return requests for comment.)
One former sorority sister at Auburn, for example, “did a new TikTok dance every day promoting Auburn Zeta Tau Alpha so people would see how much fun she was having with her ‘zisters,’” Ms. Franco said, adding that it would be a “huge hit” to Greek life at Auburn if the university’s ban extended to sorority TikTok accounts and related hashtags.
Ms. Franco said that she was not concerned about the security risks prompting the ban — a sentiment echoed by other students, including Ms. Hunt.
“From what I’ve heard and talking with my friends, I think we all have the same opinion that it just seems silly and not very warranted,” Ms. Hunt said. “While I do understand the concern around not knowing where your data is going, that’s not a TikTok-specific thing and all social media apps collect your data.”
The reactions from students reflect a significant disconnect between TikTok’s most avid users in America and the increasingly bipartisan concerns about privacy and security risks. Many lawmakers and regulators in the United States argue that TikTok can share sensitive data about the location, personal habits and interests of Americans with the Chinese government, and that the app can be used to spread propaganda.
A bipartisan bill introduced in Congress last month would ban the app for everyone in the United States. The attorney general of Indiana has sued TikTok, accusing the company of being deceptive about the security and privacy risks posed by the app.
Many lawmakers felt vindicated in their fears last month when ByteDance said that an internal investigation found its employees had inappropriately obtained the data of U.S. TikTok users, including that of two reporters. The company said that the employees involved in the scheme — two in China and two in the United States — had been fired. The Chinese company sought to emphasize its data security efforts over the past 15 months and its recent work moving the data of U.S. TikTok users to a cloud storage system operated by Oracle, the Silicon Valley software company.
For now, the ban has not appeared to change the lives of undergraduates too much.
When students opened the TikTok app on the campus Wi-Fi last week, they were able to see only the most recently posted video and no comments, according to Ms. Ambus. But students can still access the app on their own devices, through their personal Wi-Fi or cellular service. Ms. Franco said that when a teacher asked about the ban in her sports in America class last week, students said that they didn’t care about it and that they were still actively using TikTok.
Kurt Opsahl, the general counsel for Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for digital privacy and free speech, said those limitations suggested that Auburn was making more of a statement than a new policy.
“There is a lot of political fervor over TikTok and its connections to the Chinese government, and this is coming out in the form of these perhaps symbolic bans,” Mr. Opsahl said.
Students are skeptical that a full removal of TikTok, like the one that happened in India in 2020, could occur in the United States.
“I really don’t think my generation, in particular, is going to really change the way we use the app,” Ms. Hunt said. “It’s so big at this point.”