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Naomi Buck is a Toronto-based writer.

If there’s one good thing about the lawsuit that four Ontario school boards launched against three social-media giants last week, it’s that they are at least acknowledging they have a problem.

The lawsuit, brought by district school boards for Toronto, Ottawa-Carleton and Peel, as well as the Toronto Catholic District School Board, alleges that platforms such as Snapchat, TikTok, Facebook and Instagram are responsible for a laundry list of teen pathologies, including distraction, isolation, cyberbullying, aggression and declining mental health. It also claims that the companies behind them – Meta, Snap and ByteDance – have designed their products to be addictive and to prey on adolescent vulnerabilities.

None of this is breaking news. It’s been more than three years since Frances Haugen, a former data scientist at Facebook, told a U.S. Senate subcommittee that Facebook was fully aware that Instagram was fuelling depression, suicidality and body image problems in teen girls. And psychologists have long highlighted the connections between skyrocketing rates of mental illness among teens and their compulsive use of social media.

But now school boards are chiming in with a grievance of their own: that today’s teens are so damaged that schools are having trouble educating them. The Ontario lawsuit, which follows more than 200 similar cases launched by school boards south of the border, is asking social-media companies to redesign their platforms and to provide the four boards with more than $4-billion in compensation.

There’s no question that social media and cellphones have messed kids up; as the mother of teens, I have seen it with my own eyes. But school boards also need to reflect on the role they have played in all this.

About a decade ago, classrooms began filling with laptops and iPads as educational leaders claimed that students needed to get on screens early to compete in the digitally connected future. Technology companies licked their chops as governments sang the praises of e-learning (and its cost-saving potential). Soon, the education system was hooked. In an era of ever larger class sizes and the aspirationally inclusive but perennially underfunded classroom, digital devices proved useful: Give a kid a screen, and chances are, they’ll be quiet.

Schools introduced bring-your-own-device programs to ensure there were enough to go around, despite mounting evidence that these devices were distracting learners, exacerbating bullying, and being used to play video games and access social media. A provincial directive issued in 2019 to restrict the use of cellphones in classrooms went largely ignored. Then, in 2021, the Toronto District School Board introduced a program that granted all students in Grade 5 and up their own Chromebook laptop. “When technology is pervasive, routinized and seamless, it facilitates and amplifies deep learning,” the TDSB argued at the time. Now that same school board is facing a “student body with significant attention, focus, and mental health concerns,” as its director of education Colleen Russell-Rawlins put it.

No doubt school boards will argue that the detrimental impact of social media has largely happened outside schools’ walls. But it’s simply not true. Just talk to the principals dealing with the “Devious Licks challenge,” in which students post videos of the school bathrooms they’ve vandalized on TikTok – or to the parents of the student at my son’s Toronto high school who is now being home-schooled after videos of him being beaten up in the school’s hallway went viral on Snapchat and TikTok last year.

Now that we know the effect screens have on our children, we need a new approach

It will be interesting to see whether this lawsuit prompts schools to reconsider their use of technology, and to give teeth to the cellphone bans that theoretically exist in this province, as the TDSB recently vowed to do. As things stand today, students can access all the platforms cited in this suit at school using their phones’ data plans or virtual-private-network services.

We can’t just wait for social-media companies to do the right thing. They will claim, as a Snap spokesperson said in response to the Ontario suit, that “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.” They will cite the screen-time limits they impose on young users, knowing full well that no self-respecting teen uses their actual birthdate to register on these platforms. They will do and say whatever it takes to hold on to their most lucrative and susceptible market.

The political and legal pressure on social-media companies cannot let up. Politicians such as Doug Ford, who has already dismissed the lawsuit as “nonsense,” have to get their heads out of the sand and actually set foot in a public school. Like the lawyers representing the Ontario boards, who are offering their services on contingency, more people have to act in the genuine interests of the next generation – including educational leaders, who should take a long, hard look in the mirror.

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