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Four Ontario school boards sue Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok

TORONTO — Four of Ontario's largest school boards are suing the parent companies of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, alleging the social media platforms are disrupting student learning, contributing to a mental health crisis and leaving educ

The TikTok app logo appears in Tokyo on Sept. 28, 2020.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Kiichiro Sato

TORONTO — Four of Ontario's largest school boards are suing the parent companies of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, alleging the social media platforms are disrupting student learning, contributing to a mental health crisis and leaving educators to manage the fallout. 

The Toronto District School Board, the Peel District School Board, the Toronto Catholic District School Board and the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board filed four separate but similar cases in Ontario's Superior Court of Justice on Wednesday. 

The lawsuits claim the social media platforms are negligently designed for compulsive use and have rewired the way children think, behave and learn, leaving teachers and schools to deal with the consequences. 

Students are experiencing an attention, learning, and mental health crisis, the suits claim, because of prolific and compulsive use of social media products. 

"The fallout of compulsive use of social media amongst students 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," the school boards wrote in a news release Thursday. 

"The goal of the litigation is to provide school boards with the resources needed to support student programming and services, and to respond to the school-based problems social media giants have caused."

The boards are seeking damages in excess of $4 billion for disruption to student learning and the education system.

The allegations in the lawsuits have not been proven.

Meta Platforms Inc. owns Facebook and Instagram, while Snap Inc. owns Snapchat, and ByteDance Ltd. owns TikTok.

When asked for comment on the lawsuits, a spokeswoman for Snap Inc. said Snapchat helps its users stay connected with friends. 

"Snapchat opens directly to a camera — rather than a feed of content — and has no traditional public likes or comments," Tonya Johnson said. "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 for TikTok said it has "industry-leading safeguards" like parental controls, an automatic 60-minute screen time limit for users under 18 and age restrictions on features like push notifications.

"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.

Meta did not respond immediately to a request for comment. 

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

Richard Lachman, an associate professor of digital media at Toronto Metropolitan University, said the lawsuits are part of a broader conversation about the impact of social media on day-to-day life. 

While research on the topic is complicated and mixed when it comes to the general population, "study after study" has shown that adolescents are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of social media, he said. 

The boards' approach is "very interesting," in that they aren't just calling for a technological solution to the issue, but rather for support in addressing the impact on youth, he said.

"That feels like a subtle difference, but it's one that I feel is much more in alignment with how do we not just say 'technology is bad and we should ban it for young people,' because there are positives we can gain from it," he said.

"And it's also a way of just saying, it's not just a tech fix, it's not just a tweak to the algorithm and then everything's fine."

It seems to be "embracing a care for young people" and arguing resources cannot be spent the way school boards would like, he said. "I don't know if the courts will find that's a stronger argument, but I think as a society, we should find this a compelling argument," he said.

Lachman added that suggesting school boards simply ban phones isn't the answer. "It is not just a few hours, where you just need to turn your device off ... these effects are wide-reaching," he said.

The four Ontario boards, in their statements of claim, allege the online platforms have deliberately sought to draw in students and prolong their use of social media, knowing school boards would have to deal with the effects on youth and their mental health.

They allege the social media companies have acted in a "high-handed, reckless, malicious, and reprehensible manner without due regard for the well-being of the student population and the education system," which they say warrants punitive damages.

The boards allege the platforms facilitate child sexual abuse and harassment, "intentionally amplify and push harmful content to maximize engagement" and refuse to remove harmful content such as threats unless compelled by law enforcement.

The boards list a series of measures they say they've had to take in response to growing social media use among students, including pouring increased resources into investigating cyberbullying and online sexual exploitation of students, developing policies and programs to educate students on social media harms, and investigating and responding to threats made against schools, staff or students on social media.

Threats of bombs, shootings and death are growing more common, "facilitated by anonymous usernames," the boards allege, causing school closures and putting an increased burden on administrators, teachers and IT experts. The boards say they have had to shift resources to "proactively monitoring social media" for such threats and have had to urgently respond to threats after hours.

Students are also increasingly struggling to vet information and spot misinformation on social media, pushing teachers to spend "disproportionate" amounts of time and resources to help students counter misinformation and prevent them from adopting the "harmful, prejudicial, or discriminatory ideologies that they are constantly exposed to on social media," the boards allege.

In order to educate students and parents about the potential dangers of social media, boards have hired speakers, organized presentations, and curated other resources, they say.

The boards say they are also using up resources responding to spikes in vandalism and other risky behaviour encouraged by viral social media challenges.

"Students may slap the teacher’s butt or trash the school bathroom and then post this misconduct to social media. Students may engage in reckless behaviour for views, likes, and comments, such as scaling school buildings," the documents allege.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford suggested school boards should "put all their resources into the kids" rather than legal fees for "this other nonsense that they're looking to fight in court."

The school boards said, however, that they will not incur any costs for the lawsuits unless they are successful.

An email sent by the TDSB to staff, which was seen by The Canadian Press, said any money awarded through the lawsuit would be "allocated to meet the needs of our students (e.g. additional staff, technological safeguards, programming and training, etc.)."

- with files from Maan Alhmidi. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 28, 2024.

Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press