Why Canadian schools are suing social media companies

The idea behind the lawsuits is that students are not irresponsible consumers of technology, but rather victims of predatory technological brain hacking

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It is never easy being a teenager, and each new generation brings a new trouble to the table. Each new generation of adults, likewise, tries to identify and solve these problems with the benefit of their own newfound maturity, whether it is television rotting teenagers’ brains in the 1980s, video games making them violent in the 1990s, over-protective parents and “participation trophies” making them incompetent little self-absorbed whiners in the 2000s, or coddled snowflakes needing safe spaces to protect them from disagreement in the 2010s. Now, the great modern scourge of youth is smartphones, and their most addictive feature, social media applications. These are the subject of new massive legal claims by four Ontario school boards, controversially targeting social media apps like Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat for deliberately creating this new addiction and negligently ignoring evidence of its harms. It is just the latest and most striking action against smartphones and the tech companies that profit off them. The National Post breaks down the problem and the responses.

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Why are smartphones such a problem?

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In his new book The Anxious Generation, Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University, describes what faces teenagers through the technology in the palms of their hands as “a daily tornado of memes, fads and ephemeral micro-dramas, played out among a rotating cast of millions of bit players.”

The timeline never ends. You can literally scroll forever. Haidt argues that parents should keep pre-teens away from social media entirely, and that all smartphones should be banned during school for teenagers. But as Canadian school boards have discovered, that is not as simple as it sounds.

What can school boards do?

Some advocate better usage, taking advantage of time limits, or requirements that phones only be used for educational purposes. Some schools have gone it alone with a ban on smartphones, but often these policies need to be wider than single schools, and at the school board and provincial levels, the record is patchy.

In Britain, the government is set to ban smartphones from schools completely, or require that they be handed in and locked away during school hours, in an effort to “minimize disruption and improve behaviour.”

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But this is easier said than done in large school boards, as Canadian provinces have lately discovered.

Ontario tried to regulate smartphones in schools in 2019 with a ministry directive that they are only to be used for educational purposes. But after the pandemic ended, the policy became nearly impossible to enforce and is now largely ignored, though there have been recent efforts to resurrect it.

That experience mirrored an earlier effort by New York City schools to ban smartphones from schools, which showed no obvious benefit as measured in literacy or student engagement. It has since been rescinded in part because students were finding ways around it. But many of these solutions put the onus on the teenage user, arguably unfairly given that they are still just kids.

The idea behind the new Ontario lawsuits is that high school students are not irresponsible consumers of technology, but rather victims of predatory technological brain hacking.

If it harms the children, why aren’t the children suing in a class action? How does it harm the school boards?

This is where it gets tricky. The school boards — Peel, Ottawa-Carleton, Toronto, and Toronto Catholic — claim the tech firms “negligently interfered” with the board’s statutory duty to “promote the education and well-being of the student population within their constituent jurisdiction.”

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What that means is that they claim the tech firms used exploitative business practices and flooded the market with products that are addictive and unsafe because they harm brain development, sleep patterns, attention span, and behaviour regulation. They claim the tech firms “engineered products and design features to manipulate brain neurochemistry” to induce excessive, compulsive and addictive use. They claim the tech firms created a “social-validation feedback loop” that exploits the developing chemistry of the teenage brain to keep it in a “hyper-focused” and “near hypnotic” state, in part by using the “well-known psychological tactic” of the “Intermittent Variable Reward,” which induces craving and anticipation by strategically spreading out the most engaging videos or content. The result is to push teenagers towards more extreme content and more intense engagement, which can be monetized for advertising.

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Coupled with the technological ability to target users by physically locating them via their phones, what all this amounts to, the lawsuits claim, is that the tech firms are leveraging the fact that children are legally required to attend school in order to gather valuable commercial data about them. Meta, for example, the lawsuits claim “views students as commodities to be won at all costs.”

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“The Defendants purposefully designed their products to be addictive and to deliver harmful content to students. Harmful content includes, but is not limited to, content related to self-harm, suicidal ideation, drugs, alcohol, eating disorders, hate speech, and sex (particularly that encourages non-consensual sexual activity),” the Toronto District School Board’s lawsuit reads. It claims Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, knew its algorithms “push harmful content” that leads to “preference amplification,” known as going down “rabbit holes.… Indeed, it runs its own experiments, called ‘proactive incident responses’ to see what, and how fast, certain harmful content will be pushed to users.”

The lawsuits also claim social media “facilitates connections between vulnerable students and sex predators.”

As a result of all this, school boards have seen their learning and teaching environments fundamentally changed, requiring greater staff resources to deal with the fallout. They claim this puts a greater burden not just on teachers, but also on information technology resources, and even just on whoever has to clean up after popular social media challenges like trashing bathrooms. They also point to more sinister social media challenges such as deliberately asphyxiating one’s self to the point of blacking out.

The tech firms have not yet indicated how they will respond to these lawsuits, whether to defend them on the merits of the claim, or to otherwise argue against them on jurisdictional grounds.

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