‘Time to pay the social cost’ to 'This is just absurd': Canadians, experts react to Ontario school board decision to sue Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok

Social media giants should pay some price for the negative impact products have on the Canadian youth, experts say

Canadian social media experts believe it is time for tech companies like Meta, ByteDance and Snapchat to pay “social costs” which they aren’t usually accounted for as a result of their operations in the wake of four Ontario school boards alleging some of the online platforms are impacting the lives of their students negatively.

The public district school boards of Toronto, Peel and Ottawa-Carleton, along with Toronto's Catholic counterpart, are taking owners of Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok to court for allegedly harming the mental health of their students.

Social media expert Brett Caraway told Yahoo News Canada he is sympathetic to the school boards’ plight and believes it’s about time the tech brands are held accountable for their role in reengineering society.

“There’s a whole lot of other costs that result from the operation of these platforms and they are social costs, meaning there’s adverse impacts on parts and politics, there’s certainly adverse impacts on youth, on civil discourse and firms have never really had to take those things into account,” Caraway said.

Caraway believes the lawsuit brought to the court by the school boards is attempting to make the firms responsible for the adverse impact which is the by-product of their business model.

The school boards allege the platforms facilitate and promote cyberbullying, harassment, hate speech and misinformation which have collectively resulted in students experiencing an "attention, learning, and mental health crisis" because of "prolific and compulsive use of social media products."

They also allege the social media giants play a part in escalating physical violence and conflicts in schools, according to the statements of claim as shared in a news release.

The boards, which are looking for about $4.5 billion in total damages from Meta Platforms Inc., Snap Inc. and ByteDance Ltd., say their funds were under "massive strains" tackling the adverse impacts of social media on students which include additional mental health programming and staff, IT costs and administrative resources, according to the release.

‘Keep phones in locker, not classroom’: Canadians divided on the lawsuit by school boards

Canadians from different walks of life seemed divided over the issue with reactions ranging from calling the lawsuit “worth it” to absurd,” while many even accused parents and the school authorities, especially teachers, of being “lazy.”

“Even if it merely opens the conversation, the lawsuit is worth it,” posted a user on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“This is just absurd. When are institutions and governments going to accept responsibility and work to fix things? Suing a company because they provide a service people want does nothing to change habits. And how is $4.5B going to stop kids from using them?,” argued another.

“It is the failure of the parents and the school themselves. European and Asian school systems are scoring so much higher than us, when the same social media apps are also available,” said a third.

Information Technology and Culture expert Tero Karppi told Yahoo News Canada the addictive nature of social media platforms, referring to them as “sticky,” is a challenge that schools have continually struggled with.

In the school context, social media can be seen as a disruptive force, diverting attention from learning and teachers. Yet, it has also become an integral part of users' environments, where life increasingly unfolds. Schools haven't fully adapted to this shift.Tero Karppi, communications and culture expert

Social media expert Brett Caraway, who shares a similar view to Karppi, also believes the lawsuit by the four Ontario school boards against some of the big tech players hits at an issue bigger than what meets the eye.

“This lawsuit aims at the broader social context of education, it gets into something bigger than just the classroom environment. What they are pointing to is that the use of social media outside the classroom, let alone inside the classroom, is causing real harm to students which the schools confront as increased costs,” Caraway explained.

Since 2012, when social media platforms became prevalent among teens, we’ve seen dramatic increases in suicides, we’ve seen increases in mental health issues and schools are the ones that have had to pay for that - that’s the social cost.Social Media expert Brett Caraway

Is that ‘Screen Time’ feature even any good? Debatable, say experts

Experts like Caraway and Karppi are of the view that while the world catches up to the need of there being proper regulation targeted at operations of social media platforms in order to curb societal harm, especially addiction to screens among teenagers and young adults, it is crucial for users to catch themselves slipping before it’s too late.

University of Toronto’s Brett Caraway suggests using the in-built “screen time checker” to avoid getting caught in the “scrolling effect” of social media platforms like TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram.

“The way the platforms are designed is to keep your attention engaged, you don’t even realie you spent 2 to 3 hours on it. Therefore, self-regulating your behaviour by paying attention to the amount of screen time is important.”

“Just leave the phone and go spend time outside with your friend. Interface in person as much as you can,” Caraway added.

Karppi, on the contrary, believes while tools like screen time are made available by smartphone devices, the success rate behind them actually helping achieve desired results remains debatable.

“Social media platforms offer tools for monitoring and controlling screen time. However, the effectiveness of these tools remains debatable. Individual strategies exist, but social media is inherently social. The question becomes: how much control does the individual truly have?”

One approach involves collective action aimed at defining social and cultural norms for social media use. This is, perhaps, what Ontario school boards are attempting through legal action, urging platform companies to modify their products and establish new boundaries for social media use.Tero Karppi, communications and culture expert

The four major school boards in Ontario steering the lawsuit are also calling on the tech companies to redesign their products to keep students safe and "remediate" the costs to the larger education system for the greater good.