A campaign launched against social media platforms by local education authorities in the US in recent months has been replicated last week by four of Canada’s largest school boards, echoing increasing awareness about apps including Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok ‘disrupting student learning’. The four district boards – Ottawa-Carleton, Toronto, Peel and Toronto Catholic – filed four separate statements of claim seeking at least Can$4bn (US$3bn) in Ontario’s superior court of justice on Wednesday.
The lawsuit accuses Facebook and Instagram parent company Meta as well as TikTok parent company ByteDance of acting in a “high-handed, reckless, malicious, and reprehensible manner” with products the boards claim harm student learning and “rewire” how children think. This is the first such suit in Canada. In the US, the lawsuits, included one from a Maryland school district that sued Meta and ByteDance for their role in a “mental health crisis” among young people.
The Canadian district boards have also urged the companies to redesign their apps to be less addictive. The Toronto District School Board accused the companies of having “negligently designed and marketed addictive products” that are “rewiring the way that (students) think, act, behave and learn.” It cited significant problems with student attention and focus. Educators also lamented that social media use has led to students’ social withdrawal and increased cyberbullying and aggressive behaviours.
“Students are experiencing an attention, learning and mental health crisis because of prolific and compulsive use of social media products,” the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board said in a statement. This “is causing massive strains on the four school boards’ finite resources, including additional needs for in-school mental health programming and personnel, increased IT costs and additional administrative resources,” it said. None of the allegations have been proven in court.
The lawsuits in Canada come a day after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a law restricting social media access for minors under 16 on Monday, in part citing increasing concerns over the platforms’ effects on teen mental health. But the law has also sparked worry that it sets a dangerous precedent for restricting free speech online. The Canadian lawsuits also claim that social media products, negligently designed for compulsive use, are leaving educators and schools to manage the fallout. The boards accuse the social media companies in question of using “exploitative business practices” and chose to “maximise profits” instead of focusing on the mental health and wellbeing of students.
In recent years, educators have spent a growing share of their time in the classroom attempting to get students to focus, the boards said. They blame the addictive nature of social media and apps like Instagram, TikTok and SnapChat which they say have also led to a spike in cyberbullying and mental health issues. In a statement Snap said the platform was “intentionally designed to be different from traditional social media” so that users could communicate with friends. “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,” the company said. Meta and ByteDance are yet to comment.
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