Experts Call for Stricter Social Media Policies for Children as Lawsuits Emerge

In a landmark move, four of Canada’s largest school boards have filed lawsuits against some of the biggest names in social media, including Meta Platforms Inc. (Facebook and Instagram), Snap Inc. (Snapchat), and ByteDance Ltd. (TikTok). These legal actions stem from concerns over the detrimental effects of social media on students’ mental health and its interference with learning environments. The collective claims from the Toronto District School Board, Toronto Catholic District School Board, Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, and Peel District School Board amount to approximately $4.5-billion, albeit none of these claims have been proven in court yet.

This aggressive legal stance highlights a growing consensus among experts on the need for more stringent government policies concerning the online content accessible to children. Taylor Owen, a reputable voice from McGill University’s Centre for Media, Technology and Democracy, emphasized the lack of regulation in this domain has left educational institutions grappling with these challenges with minimal support from legislative bodies.

Owen advocates for an immediate uplift in online safety standards, suggesting implementations such as design alterations that prevent adults from messaging minors and halting algorithmic suggestions targeting children. “The past decade has unmistakably shown that significant improvements regarding child safety online from social media firms only occur under compulsion, through either public backlash or robust regulation,” Owen stated.

Responding to the lawsuits, representatives from TikTok and Snapchat highlighted their platforms’ existing safety measures. TikTok pointed to parental controls and an automatic one-hour screen time limit for users under 18, while Snapchat emphasized its role in fostering connections among close friends facing adolescent challenges. Meta has yet to address these allegations directly.

In light of these developments, provinces like Ontario and Quebec have dabbled with restricting cellphone usage within school premises. However, Kaitlynn Mendes, a leading figure in sociological studies at Western University, argues that this approach may not resolve the core issues. Mendes advocates for equipping children with digital literacy skills to navigate their social media usage more effectively, rather than outright banning the platforms.

Mendes’s research shed light on the dual-edged nature of social media – a vital connection to family and friends for some, yet a source of anxiety and addiction for others. Unsettling experiences such as catfishing and unwelcome advances were commonly reported among teens, underscoring the need for a more vigilant and responsible approach from social media companies towards content moderation.

Philip Mai, from the Social Media Lab at Toronto Metropolitan University, adds that the inherent design of these apps, which rewards users with validation through “dopamine hits,” exploits the vulnerabilities of developing young minds. While establishing a direct causal link between social media use and mental health remains challenging, Mai believes these lawsuits could stimulate a much-needed debate, possibly nudging social media corporations towards more responsible practices and inspiring governmental action on policies related to social media and youth.

The unfolding legal battles over social media’s impact on youth mental health and education reflect a broader societal concern. As the discourse evolves, the role of government regulation and corporate responsibility in protecting young digital citizens becomes increasingly imperative. With experts united in their call for more stringent measures, the path ahead demands a collaborative effort to shield children from the potential harms of unchecked social media usage.

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