Sunday, May 26, 2024

Ottawa public school board, 3 Toronto-area school boards launch lawsuit against social media giants

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The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board and three school boards in the Toronto-area have launched legal action seeking $4.5 billion in damages against social media giants, accusing them of “disrupting students’ fundamental right to education.”

The four school boards announced Thursday morning they have commenced legal action against the owners of Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat and TikTok, claiming “the fall out of compulsive use of social media amongst students” is costing the boards “in excess of $4 billion.” The lawsuit calls on social media giants to remediate the “enormous costs” to the education system and redesign the apps to “keep students safe.”

“The lawsuit claims that social media products, negligently designed for compulsive use, have rewired the way children think, behave, and learn, leaving educators and schools to manage the fallout,” the boards said in a statement.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, Toronto District School Board, Peel District School Board and Toronto Catholic School Board have retained Neinstein LLP, a Toronto-based litigation firm, to represent them. The legal action has been launched against Meta Platforms Inc., Snap Inc. and ByteDance Ltd.

“Students are experiencing an attention, learning and mental health crisis because of prolific and compulsive use of social media products,” the boards said.

“The fall out of compulsive use of social media amongst students is causing massive strains on the four school boards’ finite resources, including additional needs for in-school mental health programming and personnel, increased IT costs, and additional administrative resources.

“Collectively, the boards are advancing claims in excess of $4 billion. This action calls on social media giants to remediate these enormous costs to the education system, to redesign their products to keep students safe.”

Premier Doug Ford called the school boards’ lawsuit against the social media companies, “nonsense.”

Premier of Ontario Doug Ford speaks during a joint news conference with Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe, not shown, at City Hall in Ottawa, on Thursday, March 28, 2024. (Justin Tang/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

“We banned cellphones in the classroom, so I don’t know what the kids are using,” Ford told reporters in Ottawa.

“I disagree with them. Let’s focus on the core values of education. Let’s focus on math and reading and writing, that’s what we need to do. What are they spending on lawyer fees to go after these massive companies? Let’s focus on the kids, not on this other nonsense that they’re looking to fight in court.”

Four separate statements of claim were filed in Ontario’s Superior Court on Wednesday by the school boards. The boards have launched a new website, called Schools for Social Media Change Alliance.

The school boards in Ottawa and the Toronto-area say the goal of the litigation is to provide school boards with the “resources needed to support student programming and services, and to respond to the school-based problems social media giants have caused.”

The statement says school boards will not be responsible for any costs associated to the lawsuit unless a successful outcome is reached. 

Ottawa-Carleton District School Board Director of Education Pino Buffone says the reason for the lawsuit is “two-fold in nature.”

“It’s related to the achievement and wellbeing of our students,” Buffone told Newstalk 580 CFRA’s The Morning Rush with Bill Carroll.

“These social media platforms….what we’re talking about is the intentional design of software platforms that are purposefully created to encourage compulsive use. There’s intermittent, variable rewards, manipulation innocence in these platforms that cause disruption to our education system.”

Buffone says 90 per cent of Grades 7-12 students in Ottawa’s public school board use social media over five hours a day.

“I visit schools every week just to learn from the magic in the teaching and learning environments and this is an issue that our students have raised as a concern,” Buffone said Thursday morning. “It’s impacting the learning, it’s impacting their wellness and wellbeing, and even our parents and guardians are expressing this concern.”

In a statement to CTV News Ottawa, a SnapChat spokesperson said, “Snapchat was intentionally designed to be different from traditional social media, with a focus on helping Snapchatters communicate with their close friends. 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.”

A TikTok spokesperson told CTV News Ottawa, “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.”

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

With files from CP24 Web Content Writer Codi Wilson and CTV News Ottawa’s Kimberley Fowler

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