School boards’ challenges, mental health concerns in the social media era

May 13, 2024 | News, Provincial News

Finding legal ways to offset suspected mental health damage to children caused by social media use was the focus of a recent panel discussion.

The TMU Democracy Forum, a platform for engaging in discussions on critical Canadian issues, hosted the “Suing Social Media” event on May 8, 2024, at Toronto Metropolitan University.

This panel discussion, organized in collaboration with Dias, delved into the topic of five Ontario school boards suing social media giants for $4.5 billion in damages related to student mental health challenges.

The event was hosted by Toronto Star political columnist Martin Regg Cohn, who also started the Democracy Forum at TMU.

The panelists were Frances Haugen, a senior fellow-in-residence at the Centre for Media, Technology, and Democracy, Dr. Alexia Polillo, a staff scientist at the Slaight Family Centre for Youth in Transition at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH); and Rachel Chernos Lin, chair of the Toronto District School Board.

This discussion underlined the growing concern over the impact of social media on mental health, particularly among students, and it explores potential legal ways to address these challenges.

Five Ontario school boards are suing social media giants TikTok, Meta, and Snapchat in April 2024, claiming that these companies are contributing to a range of mental health challenges among children, said Lin, the chair of the Toronto District School Board.

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Peel District School Board (PDSB), Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB), the Simcoe County District School Board (SCDSB) and Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) have enlisted the services of Neinstein LLP, a Toronto-based law firm, to represent them in their legal battle against the giants.

The suit alleges social media platforms negatively affect students’ mental health. The claims allege social media products are “negligently designed for compulsive use, (and) have rewired the way children think, behave, and learn, leaving educators and schools to manage the fallout,” according to a March 28 statement from the school boards.

None of the claims have been tested in court.

“The social media products and the disruptions that we are seeing in our schools on a daily basis are becoming more problematic,” Lin said. She said that the $4.5 billion being sought would be allocated to address the harm already created and potential future harm resulting from their actions.

Lin said the money will be used to provide more psychological help; social workers, IT, and additional staff. She said it would also be used for repairing infrastructure damaged by students due to their behaviours influenced by social media content.

Haugen alleged social media companies knowingly developed algorithms that cause harm, prioritizing profit over addressing these issues, which need urgent rectification.

“Deprivation is the number one risk factor for mental health issues or kid’s poor performance in school which lasts with them for a lifetime,” Haugen said.

At one point, Facebook turned off the notifications option, resulting in students feeling less anxious and more productive and were able to complete their sleep cycle, she said.

However, Haugen said Zuckerberg turned notifications back on when the website’s usage decreased by one per cent.

She said the students she taught two decades ago and those she currently encounters exhibit significant differences.

“They are more volatile, they’re struggling more, they are not performing to their grade level because they have phones,” Haugen said.

Polillo said several factors can contribute to the deterioration of a child’s mental health, such as misinformation, cyberbullying, the non-consensual sharing of text messages or images, and revenge porn.

“I feel there’s a correlation between isolation and the association between anxiety and depression but we also know there are a lot of positives,” she said.

She highlighted that social media also presents positives for children, allowing them to seek confidential help.

In a study by Polilo, she said students felt unsafe reporting cyberbullying to their teachers, hesitant due to the teacher’s lack of training in handling such issues.

She emphasizes how children’s use of social media affects how they behave.