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Social media lawsuit: Why school boards are raising red flags over use

By admin Jun1,2024

As Ontario school boards raise red flags over social media use among students, experts say the evidence is mounting that more screen time is linked to changes in behaviour.

On Wednesday, five more Ontario school boards and two private schools joined a lawsuit against Meta, Snapchat and TikTok initially launched in March that alleges they disrupt student learning and the education system. Four of Ontario’s largest school boards originally filed the lawsuit and are seeking $4.5 billion in damages.

“The lawsuits filed by these boards and schools claim social media products, intentionally designed for compulsive use, have rewired the way children think, behave, and learn and educators within these boards/schools have been left to manage the fallout,” said the group representing the school boards, Schools for Social Media Change.

“The addictive properties of the products designed by social media giants have compromised all students’ ability to learn, disrupted classrooms and created a student population that suffers from increasing mental health harms.”

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The school boards’ lawsuit claims that social media giants owe a responsibility because they “knowingly and/or negligently engineered products and design features to manipulate brain neurochemistry and to induce excessive and/or compulsive and/or addictive and/or problematic use amongst students.”

In response to the lawsuit, a spokesperson for TikTok told Global News on Thursday that the platform has “industry-leading safeguards such as parental controls, an automatic 60-minute screen time limit for users under 18, age-restrictions on features like push notifications, and more.”

“Our team of Safety professionals continually evaluate emerging practices and insights to support teens’ well-being and will continue working to keep our community safe,” the spokesperson said.

A Meta spokesperson told Global News Thursday that it has developed over 30 tools to support teens and their families, including “tools that allow parents to decide when, and for how long, their teens use Instagram, age verification technology, automatically setting accounts belonging to those under 16 to private when they join Instagram, and sending notifications encouraging teens to take regular breaks.”

“We’ve invested in technology that finds and removes content related to suicide, self-injury or eating disorders before anyone reports it to us,” Meta said.

“These are complex issues, but we will continue working with experts and listening to parents to develop new tools, features and policies that are effective and meet the needs of teens and their families.”

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Snap Inc., which owns Snapchat, in a statement to Global News on Friday highlighted that the app is designed differently from other social media apps, including opening directly to a camera and having no “traditional” public likes or comments.

“While we will always have more work to do, we feel good about the role Snapchat plays in helping close friends feel connected, happy and prepared as they face the many challenges of adolescence,” a spokesperson said.

The allegations in the lawsuits have not been proven in court.

Click to play video: 'Trillium Lakelands District School Board joins lawsuit against social media giants'

Trillium Lakelands District School Board joins lawsuit against social media giants

School boards in Ontario are not alone in taking action on social media. B.C. has put proposed online harms legislation on hold after reaching an agreement with Meta, TikTok, X and Snap to form an online safety action table, where they’ll discuss “tangible steps” towards protecting people from online harms.

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Meanwhile, regulators in the European Union opened a formal investigation in late May to explore potential breaches of online content rules related to child safety on Instagram and Facebook.

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The European Commission said it was concerned the algorithmic systems used by the popular social media platforms to recommend videos and posts could “exploit the weaknesses and inexperience” of children and stimulate “addictive behaviour.”

Click to play video: 'Trillium Lakelands District School Board joins lawsuit against social media giants'

Trillium Lakelands District School Board joins lawsuit against social media giants

Youth ‘can be more susceptible’ to effects of social media

Emma Duerden, an assistant professor and the research chair for neuroscience and learning disorders at Western University, told Global News that social media can release dopamine into the system through rewarding stimuli, and it is this chemical reaction that platforms try to take advantage of.

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She said children are very susceptible to rewards as cognitive control centres in the prefrontal cortex of the brain that act to put the brakes on reward centres do not develop until we are in our 20s or 30s.

“Young children and teens can be more susceptible to these rewards that social media platforms are really based on,” she said. “And then not really having the brain machinery to be able to put the brakes and say, ‘Oh no, I need to put this down right now.’

“We’re really seeing this play out in terms of children’s behaviour in school and hence the lawsuits.”

Duerden said the dopamine release can cause “popcorn brain,” where people are switching from one activity to another constantly, like kernels popping in a pan, in a search of more dopamine.

Social media has always been a concern, but Duerden said the amount of time children and teens spend on screens has shot up since the COVID-19 pandemic. She said during the pandemic, screen time went up to about three times the recommended amount of time of two hours a day set by the Canadian Paediatric Society, to six hours, according to a Western survey.

Now that pandemic restrictions have mostly lifted, screen time has not gone down with them. Duerden said screen time is still double the recommendation, sitting at four hours a day, according to a survey done of about 200 children between 2020 and 2023, the full results of which have not been published yet.

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She said that children and youth who have a really high amount of screen time are associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression, and tracking their brain development has shown changes in regions involved in social processing and connectedness.

Click to play video: 'Social media plays role in inspiring school shootings: Sen. Murphy'

Social media plays role in inspiring school shootings: Sen. Murphy

The Toronto District School Board says that it has seen itself the higher level of screen time and its effect on students.

Trustee Rachel Chernos Lin told Global News in March that over 45 per cent of young people are spending over five hours a day on social media, and schools say social withdrawal, anxiety, mental health concerns and rise in aggressive behaviours in students can be linked with social media use.

“(Social media use) is having a tremendous impact on their mental health, their well-being, their behaviours, their attention span,” Chernos Lin said.

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“(Social media apps are) doing tremendous harm to young people. They’re affecting the way they learn, the way they behave, the way they feel.”

She said students being distracted, withdrawn and anxious impacts teachers’ ability to teach them.

Rachel Mitchell, a child and youth psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, told Global News that she is seeing a change in youth both in her practice and in published research. She said there’s now more depression, anxiety and behavioural symptoms and less time socializing among children and adolescents.

In her practice, she said she sees children that didn’t have anxiety when they were younger get it as they age.

Although she said the research still isn’t conclusive on what is causing the anxiety, she said it makes sense that with more screen time comes more isolation, and with that, mood and behavioural changes. Research has shown increases in suicidal behaviour, self-harm, eating disorders, cell phone addiction, and anxiety and depression among youth, according to Mitchell.

The lack of supervision on social media also means that bullies can prevail, she said, and children can keep what they experience online to themselves.

“(Teachers) are seeing things in the classroom that they didn’t see before,” she said. “Certainly, the literature shows that kids are not the same as they were.”

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Click to play video: 'The trouble with mental health, social media, and the internet'

The trouble with mental health, social media, and the internet

While there is growing evidence social media is affecting youth’s lives, lawyer and law professor at Humber College, Alex Colangelo, told Global News in an email that he believes the school boards’ lawsuit is a long-shot because social media companies don’t owe them a duty of care.

“If the social media companies don’t owe the school boards a duty, there can be no negligence against the school boards,” he said.

Another big hurdle to the lawsuit is that school boards have to show they suffered damages caused by the social media companies, which he said could be difficult to prove.

“I don’t see much of a legal chance and it sounds like the lawsuit is more about publicity than law,” he said.

— with files from Global News’ Uday Rana, Gabby Rodrigues, The Canadian Press and Reuters

By admin

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