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Protect kids by ending government Wi-Fi on school buses
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Protect kids by ending government Wi-Fi on school buses

Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Anxious Generation” has parents around the country asking whether children should have access to social media or other tech platforms.

Frankly, parents should be worried, especially when the federal government just made unencumbered access to these platforms more accessible at schools.

Keeping these devices out of schools is paramount to facilitating children’s intellectual growth and promoting their mental health. As Matt Yglesias aptly wrote, “The point of apps is to promote engagement and use, and the point of school is to not be scrolling on social media apps.” This isn’t hypothetical. Schools that have made these changes are seeing positive results. One such example is Dayton Public Schools in Ohio, which was recently highlighted on "The Today Show." The school district reported benefits that include tangible improvements in reading and math assessments as well as better social interaction among the students and teachers.

Schools have even placed restrictions on what a child can access when on the schools' Wi-Fi network.

So why then has Biden’s Federal Communications Commission enacted measures to keep these devices in schools with no adult supervision?

Candidly, the unsupervised access to the internet for kids at school, where Wi-Fi is subsidized by the U.S. government, is largely ignored by policymakers and advocates who claim to be concerned with the experience children have online. Late last year, the Biden FCC ramrodded a proposal through an arcane program called E-Rate to provide schools with millions of taxpayer dollars to pay for Wi-Fi on school buses. The Biden administration argued that this modification to E-Rate would close “the homework gap” by creating more time for kids to access the internet while on a bus to and from school. But in reality, it created a new window of opportunity for bullying and exploitation.

This is dangerous, because a lot happens on school buses. Some rural school districts report that they receive an average of 75 referrals a day from incidents occurring on school buses. And those statistics make sense. To start, school buses only have one adult on board, usually the driver, and her eyes are on the road. She can’t also supervise the kids in general, much less monitor whether they are bypassing the school's firewalls to access harmful content through a VPN. To make matters worse, some kids are on a school bus for hours at a time, five days a week. Worse yet, elementary kids share buses with higher classes, even high-schoolers; just imagine what type of adult content those younger kids can get exposed to in that environment.

And the FCC thought it wise to give kids as young as 5 unfettered access to the internet with their parents being out of pocket?

This is especially concerning when many local jurisdictions have fought to keep these devices out of their schools. From Connecticut to Iowa, school districts are enacting prohibitions and limits on screen time while on school premises. This is local control at its best. Communities are recognizing that smartphone screentime can undermine educational efforts. They should be empowered to come together, making decisions that are best for their students.

The fact that the federal government is leveraging millions of dollars to perversely incentivize these local decisions is unconscionable. The FCC is, in effect, strong-arming districts to abandon their local policies, because the agency knows that cash strapped public-school districts will not leave that money on the table. Instead of having them make that Hobson’s choice, Congress should slash the program that is undermining these local decisions to reduce the impact of unchecked device access immediately.

Whether in the classroom or on a yellow school bus, how devices are managed at schools must be left up to parents and the local school districts, not the federal government. Especially when those kids are in an unsupervised space like the back of a bus where there is more likelihood of bullying and access to adult content.

Thankfully, an unlikely bipartisan duo is looking to do just that. Earlier this year, Sen. John Fetterman (D-Penn.) joined Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in cosponsoring the Eyes on the Board Act. This bipartisan legislation would prohibit schools that receive FCC funding from allowing access to social media platforms on subsidized services, devices, or networks. The Act seeks to embolden recent initiatives driven by parents and district officials to ameliorate the harms caused by Big Tech’s influence over the school experience.

Congress has an opportunity to help parents and teachers by getting the FCC out of the way. Instead of wasting millions of dollars on a program that actively endangers students, Congress must end this program that is in fact undermining efforts to help students.

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Nathan Leamer

Nathan Leamer

Nathan Leamer is the CEO of Fixed Gear Strategies and the executive director of the Digital First Project.
Joel Thayer

Joel Thayer

Joel Thayer is the president of the Digital Progress Institute. His experience also includes working as legal clerk for FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and FTC Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen.