Ontario schools are suing firms behind TikTok, Meta, Snapchat. Here’s why

Click to play video: 'Why 4 Ontario school boards are suing 3 social media giants'
Why 4 Ontario school boards are suing 3 social media giants
WATCH: Four Ontario school boards have launched lawsuits against Meta, TikTok, and Snapchat over allegations their platforms are negligently designed for compulsive use, and have rewired the way children think, behave, and learn. Abigail Bimman reports on how much money the school boards are seeking; how many hours a day kids and teens are logged onto social media; and how the tech companies are responding – Mar 28, 2024

Four Ontario school boards are taking some of the world’s biggest and most popular social media giants to court, seeking damages worth $4.5 billion.

The Toronto District School Board, the Peel District School Board, the Toronto Catholic District School Board, and the Ottawa Carleton District School Board on Wednesday filed a claim in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.

They sought damages from the companies behind Snapchat and TikTok as well as Meta, which owns both Facebook and Instagram. The schools have alleged that these social media platforms impact the mental health and learning capacities of students and create “widespread disruption to the education system.”

Toronto District School Board trustee Rachel Chernos Lin said schools have noted social withdrawal, anxiety, mental health concerns and rise in aggressive behaviors in students linked to social media use.

“Over 45 per cent of young people are spending over five hours on social media a day,” she said. “That’s having a tremendous impact on their mental health, their well-being, their behaviors, their attention span.”

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Here’s what to know.

What does the lawsuit claim?

Duncan Embury, head of litigation at the Toronto law firm Neinstein LLP, said, “We’ve issued claim on behalf of four of the biggest school boards in Ontario against the social media giants Meta, Snap and TikTok for the disruption of the education system and the effect on adolescents and students of these products and what that means for their education and what it means for the resources at the schools.”

The 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.”

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

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She added, “When students are distracted, when they’ve withdrawn socially, when they’re having anxiety… that has an impact on a teacher’s ability to actually deliver the educational piece and the content that kids need to learn.”

Imran Ahmed is the CEO of the think tank, Center for Countering Digital Hate in Washington, D.C.

He said teens are now facing a digital environment “full of disinformation, full of lies, full of hate, full of eating disorder and self-harm content. But it’s also changing the way that they process information.”

What specific concerns are there?

The statements of claim point out specific design choices in certain social media apps, that the lawsuit alleges are intended to keep young users engaged while simultaneously reducing their attention spans.

They said in addition to providing “endless and infinite content,” these apps lack effective parental control, mandatory screen time limitations, identity verification and have inadequate age verification measures.

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The statement alleges Meta, which owns both Facebook and Instagram, have built students into their marketing strategy.

The lawyers pointed out the use of Instagram’s Reels feature or the length of TikTok videos, which they say is a “a deliberate design choice to keep the consumer’s attention”.

“The main feature of TikTok is a “For You Page” (FYP) an infinite stream of continuous content dictated by the Defendants’ machine learning algorithms,” the statement of claim said.

A spokesperson for Snapchat in Canada said their platform was “intentionally designed” to be different from what it calls “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,” Snapchat spokesperson Tonya Johnson told Global News.

The statement of claim alleged that Snapchat has “gamified” its product to “encourage compulsive use” through features such as Snapchat Streaks and various trophies, charms and rewards. Snapchat also has a “Snapscore,” that is directly linked to the number of snaps sent and received.

A user’s Snapscore is viewable to other users.

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Click to play video: 'TikTok: What a Canadian ban could look like and its impact on creators'
TikTok: What a Canadian ban could look like and its impact on creators

A spokesperson for TikTok said, “TikTok 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.”

Embury said they are working collaboratively with firms in the United States, where he said more than 500 school boards are bringing similar lawsuits.

In Florida, the state government passed a bill on Tuesday to ban minors under 14 from having social media accounts, and online platforms will be forced to delete any accounts already owned by those under the legal age.

For people between ages 14 and 15, parental consent will be needed to register a social media account.

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In October, a group of 33 U.S. states, including California and New York, sued Meta for allegedly harming young people’s mental health 

Click to play video: 'Ford calls for Ontario school board to ‘focus on kids’ — not legal battle with social media giants'
Ford calls for Ontario school board to ‘focus on kids’ — not legal battle with social media giants

What is the impact?

The proposed damages of $4.5 billion have been split among the four school boards, with the TDSB claiming the highest share of damages at $1.6 billion.

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Embury said, “It’s a measure of the level of harm that’s occurring and the amount of resources that the schools have identified are going to be necessary in order to combat that problem, both as it exists now and as we look into the future.”

Lin told Global News that they’ve also been working with parents to curb social media use.

“Parents are seeing that same kind of behavior dysregulation at home, that social withdrawal. And it’s very challenging. We look all ways to work with parents, but we are now at a place where it really is beyond parents’ ability to manage this.”

Ontario’s education minister Stephen Lecce said that while he agrees that there are “challenges” around distraction, school board resources are better focused elsewhere.

“I want school boards to spend their resources on what matters to families, which is enriching the life of a child through academics. So that means back to basics,” he told reporters on Thursday.

Ahmed said the lawsuit was a step in the right direction since social media companies needed to be tested in the courts and held accountable.

“These platforms have known for a long time about the harm they’re causing young people,” he said.

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