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TikTok, Snapchat respond as Ontario school boards sue social media giants

Four major Ontario school boards are taking some of the largest social media companies to court over their products, alleging the way they’re designed has negatively rewired the way children think, behave and learn and disrupted the way schools operate.

The public district school boards of Toronto, Peel and Ottawa-Carleton, along with Toronto’s Catholic counterpart, are looking for about $4.5 billion in total damages from Meta Platforms Inc., Snap Inc. and ByteDance Ltd., which operate the platforms Facebook and Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok respectively, according to separate but similar statements of claim filed Wednesday.

“These social media companies … have knowingly created a product that is addictive and marketed to kids,” said Rachel Chernos Lin, the chair of the Toronto District School Board, on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning on Thursday.

“We need them to be held accountable and we need them to create safer products.”

WATCH | Social media giants ‘knowingly’ harming children, TDSB chair: 

Social media giants ‘knowingly’ harming children, TDSB chair says in wake of lawsuit

Four of Ontario’s largest school boards, including the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), have launched lawsuits against social media giants behind Meta, Snapchat and TikTok for allegedly causing harm to students. Metro Morning host David Common spoke with TDSB chair Rachel Chernos Lin about the action.

The allegations have yet to be proven in court, and there is no set date for when they will be heard. CBC Toronto has reached out to the companies named for comment.

The school boards, speaking under a new coalition called Schools for Social Media Change, allege students are experiencing an “attention, learning, and mental health crisis” because of “prolific and compulsive use of social media products,” in a news release.

They allege the platforms facilitate and promote cyberbullying, harassment, hate speech and misinformation, and have a part in escalating physical violence and conflicts in schools, according to the statements of claim.

They also argue these apps are “purposefully designed” to deliver harmful content to students dealing with topics such as suicidal ideation, drugs, self-harm, alcohol, eating disorders, hate speech and sex — particularly content encouraging “non-consensual” sexual activity.

Trying to respond to those problems has caused “massive strains” on the boards’ funds, including in additional mental health programming and staff, IT costs and administrative resources, the release says. The boards call on the social media giants to “remediate” the costs to the larger education system and redesign their products to keep students safe.

Lawsuit may be first of its kind in Canada

Hundreds of school boards in the United States, along with some states, have launched similar lawsuits against social media companies.

Last fall, over 30 states accused Meta Platforms Inc. of harming young people’s mental health and contributing to the youth mental health crisis by knowingly designing features on Instagram and Facebook that cause children to be addicted to its platforms.

A spokesperson for TikTok said the app has “industry-leading safeguards,” including parental controls and an automatic 60 minute screen time limit for users under 18.

“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. 

  • This week, Cross Country Checkup is asking whether to ban cell phones in schools. Send us your questions by filling in this form.

In an email, a spokesperson for Snap said Snapchat was “intentionally designed to be different from traditional social media.”

“Snapchat opens directly to a camera — rather than a feed of content — and has 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.”

WATCH | How social media is changing the way kids behave:

What social media scrolling is doing to kids’ brains

With most children and teenagers spending hours a day on a smartphone, CBC’s Christine Birak breaks down what research shows about how using social media is changing kids’ behaviour, if it’s rewiring their brains and what can be done about it.

Neinstein LLP, a Toronto-based firm, is representing the school boards. The boards will not be responsible for any costs related to the suit unless a successful outcome is reached, the release says.

Duncan Embury, a partner and head of litigation at Neinstein, told CBC News the named companies are “mainly responsible” for the social media products that kids use, and share “common” designs or algorithms that lead to “problematic use.”

To his knowledge, this is the first case of its kind in Canada. 

“Based on what we’re seeing and what we’re hearing from our educators, I think this is a problem that is pervasive across our system and I wouldn’t be surprised if there [were] more boards that took this step,” said Embury.

Patrick Daly, president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association, said he knows a few boards not involved in the lawsuits that are in considering signing on — including the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board, of which he’s board chair.

“I’m sure all of them are doing their due diligence,” he said. “Some would take more time than others, but there’s no doubt on my mind that all are thoughtfully considering and they’ll make a decision that’s best for their system.”

Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, agreed that more school boards will likely join the lawsuits in the near future. 

Litigation costs for participating schools will not come from school board budgets “and will be paid from damages awarded,” she said.  

Though the province-wide association is not part of the litigation, Abraham said it is supportive — noting that schools are feeling the impact of the hours that students spend on social media platforms outside the classroom. 

“School boards have, for some time now, been forced to divert resources including personnel, hours, funds, and attention to combat the growing crisis,” she said in an email.  

Ford ‘disagrees’ with move

At an unrelated news conference on Thursday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he “disagrees” with the schools boards’ lawsuits, referencing a provincial ban on cellphones from classrooms back in 2019.

“We banned cellphones in the classroom, so I don’t know what the kids are using,” Ford said.

“What are they spending on lawyer fees to go after these massive companies that have endless cash to fight this? Let’s focus on the kids, not about this other nonsense that they’re looking to fight in court.”

WATCH | Ford disagrees with school board lawsuits against social media companies:

Ford disagrees with school board lawsuits against social media companies

Ontario Premier Doug Ford responded to news Thursday that four major school boards in the province are suing some of the largest social media companies over alleged harm to young people, saying he disagrees with the boards’ action. “Let’s focus on the kids, not about this other nonsense,” he told reporters.

CBC News spoke to parents with children who attend schools in the Toronto District School Board, which has recently moved to redevelop its policy on cellphone use in classrooms. The board has previously said it had problems enforcing rules stating students should only use phones for educational purposes only.

While they all agree social media apps are a problem, they differ in what approach they think should be used to regulate them.

“Just take the phones away,” said Gillian Henderson.

“I don’t think we need to sue anybody, that seems like a long, expensive process. Just take away their phones in class and give them back to them when they need them.”

Close-up photo of apps Facebook, Facebook messenger and Instagram.
Meta Platforms Inc., which owns Instagram and Facebook, has been named in a lawsuit initiated by four major Ontario school boards alleging these apps, alongside Snapchat and TikTok, are harming students and the broader education system. (Jenny Kane/The Associated Press)

Shyon Baumann said school boards could use some help in reducing screen time.

“If the school boards can do what they can trying to police it, that would be great. But it would be also great if the app creators did what they could to make the harms decrease,” he said.

“If they’re not going to make voluntary changes, then maybe doing it through the courts is the most effective way.”

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