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BEYOND LOCAL: Simcoe County school board joins $4B social-media lawsuit

‘These platforms, while making millions of dollars, have done substantial harm to children,’ says Simcoe County District School Board chair
Meridyth and Marisa, two grade nine Colingwood Collegiate Institute students, browse on their phones during their lunch break. The Simcoe County District School Board is jumping on a $4 billion lawsuit between Ontario school boards and social media platforms.

Late last week, four Ontario school boards announced they were suing the owners of Facebook/Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok for more than $4 billion for damage done to students which they allege have contributed to rising violence in schools and a youth mental health crisis.

This week, the Simcoe County District School Board (SCDSB) confirmed they will be joining the complainants in the lawsuit.

“We can either be bystanders and let the use of these platforms and behaviour continue, or we can stand up and try and effect change so it doesn’t,” Orillia/Severn/Ramara trustee and SCDSB board chair Jodi Lloyd told CollingwoodToday this week.

“This goes well beyond cell phones in the classroom. What this action is about is the overall harm that has been and continues to be done to youth by using these applications,” she said.

According to reporting by Canadian Press, the four separate statements of claim were filed in Ontario's Superior Court of Justice by the Toronto District School Board, the Peel District School Board, the Toronto Catholic District School Board and the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board on March 27.

The lawsuits claim 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 boards are seeking damages in excess of $4 billion for disruption to student learning and the education system from Meta Platforms Inc., Snap Inc. and ByteDance Ltd. which operate Facebook and Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok respectively. The lawsuit is being spearheaded by Neinstein LLP, who posted a statement on their website last week noting that school boards will not be responsible for any costs related to the lawsuit unless a successful outcome is reached.

‘It does affect people’

Marisa and Meridyth, both grade nine students at Collingwood Collegiate Institute, told CollingwoodToday they spend significant amounts of time on social media.

“I’m probably using it four hours (a day),” said Marisa.

When asked whether they think there’s a correlation between increased social media use and a crisis in youth mental health, both said they’d seen first-hand incidents of arguments on social media spill into the hallways of the school.

“If people are arguing over texting, a screenshot can be shared and that causes a lot of arguments and it can end up in fights,” said Marisa.

“For fights, I think that’s the main reason,” said Meridyth.

Both students said they feel users also have a responsibility to temper their own social media use, and the blame shouldn’t be laid entirely on school boards or social media companies.

“There are billions of people using these apps. (The companies) can’t direct every single person,” said Marisa.

While both Marisa and Meridyth said they tend to have a positive outlook, they both have friends who have struggled with their mental health.

“It’s sad they can let bad words get to them. It’s the same as if someone was bullying you in real life. You have to find help and tell someone... but it does affect people,” said Marisa.

Meridyth also said there are some positives to social media, such as access to mental health support through apps such as Instagram.

“There are so many help pages. It’s therapeutic. I haven’t done it but I know people who have, and they say it’s nice to talk to someone who isn’t their parents. Not everyone can afford therapy,” she said.

‘It is costing boards, and it’s costing society’

The lawsuit is considered a mass tort action, which differs from a class-action lawsuit as each party must issue their own statement of claim. In a class-action lawsuit, one statement of claim is filed on behalf of all parties. Lloyd said the SCDSB has not yet filed their statement of claim.

“The Simcoe County District School Board will be participating in this, we are just in a different part of the process working toward that,” said Lloyd. “We are not at that point, but it is our intent to get there.”

The lawsuit is believed to be one of the first cases 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.

Following news of the lawsuits coming out late last week, Ontario Premier Doug Ford noted cell phones are banned in schools.

"I don't know what the kids are using, but I disagree with them," Ford said in response to a question about the lawsuit.

Lloyd said the SCDSB encourages the use of cell phones for learning purposes, but said it’s a challenge to enforce.

“Youth have become so tied to their phones that there are incidents where restricting creates escalation,” she said. “The Premier’s comments show a lack of understanding of the complexity of the issue.”

According to a survey by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), 86 per cent of students in Ontario visit social media sites daily and about 16 per cent spend five hours a day or more on social media. According to a 2021 survey done by the CAMH, the country is facing a youth mental health crisis with 38 per cent of students reporting poor or fair mental health and 26 per cent reporting feeling as though they are in serious psychological distress.

Current research has shown that social media use can lead to altering of moods, motivation, concentration and some instances of compulsive behaviour that present similar to a drug addiction.

“We give youth a cell phone, and there are very little controls in place on how these forums are used,” she said. “We are being asked in the school system to address and respond to the consequences of using these social media platform. It is taxing school board resources to do so.”

Lloyd says the SCDSB currently has 24 social workers in schools, however she can remember a time when there were none.

“We’re stretching our resources as far as we can but the need is great, and is getting greater,” she said. “It is costing boards, and it’s costing society with long-term negative consequences for all of us.”

Lloyd said she anticipates there will be more school boards across Ontario filing their own statements of claim as part of the lawsuit in the coming months.

“The purpose of this is to create greater awareness too, so people will think about it and talk about it. These platforms, while making millions of dollars, have done substantial harm to children,” she said.

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Jessica Owen

About the Author: Jessica Owen

Jessica Owen is an experienced journalist working for Village Media since 2018, primarily covering Collingwood and education.
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