Five more Ontario school boards and two private schools are suing the companies behind social-media platforms Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat and TikTok, accusing them of designing unsafe and addictive products that harm the mental health of students and disrupt learning.

The statements of claim were filed on Tuesday in Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice by Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board, York Catholic District School Board, Trillium Lakelands District School Board, Ottawa Catholic School Board, District School Board of Niagara, as well as Holy Name of Mary College School, an all-girls school in Mississauga, and Eitz Chaim, a Jewish day school in Toronto.

In March, four of the country’s largest school boards – Toronto District School Board, Toronto Catholic District School Board, Ottawa-Carleton District School Board and Peel District School Board – became the first in Canada to file lawsuits that accused social-media companies of negligently designing products that interfered with learning and rewired students behaviour while leaving educators to manage the fallout.

The new lawsuits share similar wording and characterize social-media companies as choosing to “maximize profits at the expense of student well-being,” without regard to the limited resources that schools have to divert to help young people.

The boards and private schools have filed lawsuits against Meta Platforms Inc., which is responsible for Facebook and Instagram, Snap Inc., the parent company of Snapchat, and ByteDance Ltd., the owner of TikTok. The school boards and private schools are advancing claims of $2.6-billion.

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

In an e-mailed statement Tuesday, Meta said it was working to “provide teens with safe, supportive experiences online,” including investing in technology that finds and removes content related to suicide, self-injury and eating disorders before its reported.

TikTok said the app has safeguards in place, including parental controls and an automatic 60-minute screen-time limit for users under 18. Snap said it intends to defend the claims, and added that while it has 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.”

The increased use of social media among children and young people has been a source of worry for policy makers, educators and parents.

Last month, the Ontario government announced that it would crackdown on cellphone use in schools. Under new rules coming this fall, students in Grade 6 and below must put their cellphones away, powered off or set to silent mode throughout the school day, unless they receive permission from the teacher. Students in Grades 7 to 12 will only be able to access their phones between classes or during lunch, unless directed by the teacher.

Students who don’t comply would be sent to the principal’s office, and they could be suspended.

School boards will also be required to restrict access to all social-media platforms on school WiFi networks and on school devices, the government said.

Last year, Quebec directed its school boards to restrict phone use in classes by Dec. 31, though it left penalties up to local decision-makers. British Columbia said in January that it would work with school districts to design restrictions in time for this fall. And Alberta recently asked families to weigh in on cellphone use in schools.

In the lawsuits, the school boards and schools say that the companies should have known that their “negligent conduct” would disrupt the sleep patterns and brain development of young people, and keep them from focusing and learning in the classroom.

The boards and schools are represented by Neinstein LLP. School boards are not responsible for costs related to the lawsuits and the firm will take a fee if damages are awarded.

Carrie Hughes-Grant, head of school at Holy Name of Mary in Mississauga, said her girls school has rules around cellphone use. However, it’s been challenging to manage behaviour around technology, she said.

“I would really like them to acknowledge the fact that they have knowingly created addictive technology,” she said.

Tom D’Amico, education director at the Ottawa Catholic school board, said he hopes that the lawsuits will prompt social media companies to make changes that will protect young people.

“We’re not against technology. We see it has lots of potential for good,” he said, adding that “we’re seeing the other side of the coin, in the sense of the damage that it’s having on their mental health.”

The Globe and Mail, May 29, 2024