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Colleen Russell Rawlins, Director of Education with the Toronto District School Board, pictured with students at Selwyn Elementary School on Mar 27.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Four of Canada’s largest school boards are suing the companies behind social-media platforms Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat and TikTok, accusing them of negligently designing products that disrupt learning and rewire student behaviour while leaving educators to manage the fallout.

In four separate statements of claim filed on Wednesday in Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice, the Toronto District School Board, the Toronto Catholic District School Board, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board and the Peel District School Board accused social-media companies of employing “exploitative business practices” and choosing to “maximize profits” at the expense of the mental health and well-being of students.

The addictive nature of social media means that educators spend more classroom time trying to have students focus on their lessons, the boards say in the statements of claim. They say the compulsive use of social-media platforms has also strained limited school board resources: Schools require additional mental health programs and personnel; staff spend more time addressing aggressive behaviour and incidents of cyberbullying; and information-technology services and cybersecurity costs have increased.

“The Defendants have acted in a high-handed, reckless, malicious, and reprehensible manner without due regard for the well-being of the student population and the education system,” according to the statements of claim.

Similar lawsuits against social-media companies have been filed in the United States in recent months by individual states and school districts. This would mark the first time it’s being done by school boards in Canada.

The four boards filed their lawsuits against Meta Platforms Inc. META-Q, which is responsible for Facebook and Instagram, Snap Inc. SNAP-N, the parent company of SnapChat, and ByteDance Ltd., owner of TikTok.

The school boards are advancing combined claims of around $4.5-billion. They are also asking that the social-media giants redesign their products to keep students safe.

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

In an e-mailed statement, Tonya Johnson, a spokeswoman for Snap, said the platform was “intentionally designed to be different from traditional social-media” so that users could communicate with friends. “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,” she stated.

Meta and ByteDance did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Social-media use by children and young people has been the topic of widespread discussion among parents, policymakers and educators. Earlier this week, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill that bans social-media accounts for children under 14 and requires parental permission for 14- and 15-year-olds.

In Canada and elsewhere, there are growing concerns over the role social-media platforms play in cyberbullying, disrupted sleep patterns, brain development, and the inability of young people to focus.

A survey from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in 2021 found that 91 per cent of students in Grades 7 to 12 use social media daily, and about a third spend five hours or more daily on it. Researchers surveyed more than 2,000 Ontario students. Almost one-third reported being cyber-bullied at least once in the past year.

In their lawsuits, the four school boards said the companies “knew, or ought to have known, that the deliberate design of addictive and defective social-media products would interfere with students’ access to an education, negatively impact the learning environment, and create a public nuisance within the education system.”

Colleen Russell-Rawlins, education director of the Toronto District School Board, the country’s largest school board, said in an interview on Wednesday that social media has affected the education system in “very significant ways.”

“Students are not present,” she said, describing the addictive nature of social-media platforms. Educators are hearing about more incidents of cyberbullying. They are witnessing the rapid escalation of aggression that starts online. And they are helping students who are coping with anxiety and other mental health challenges.

The lawsuits, she said, are not just about raising awareness, but about protecting children by calling for safeguards and ensuring that school boards have the resources to help address the negative effects of increased social-media use.

“I think there’s no other childhood addiction that’s impacting children’s futures through education that we as educators and leaders would be expected to remain silent about. We feel compelled to act on behalf of our young people,” Ms. Russell-Rawlins said.

Pino Buffone, the education director at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, echoed the sentiment, adding that the compulsive use of social media has further strained the finite resources of the school board. Educators and other school staff are being forced to manage behaviour that stems from social-media use.

“It has become clear that we need to hold social-media giants accountable,” Mr. Buffone said.

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