Social media harms

The way social media harms our kids has been in the news lately. I am not talking about the Online Harms Act, which has been the subject of a number of my recent posts. I will also not be talking (at least not in this post) about the inappropriateness of the Governor General hosting a forum about Online Harms when a bill is being reviewed by Parliament.

Four of the largest school boards in Canada launched a lawsuit against the owners of Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat and TikTok. The suit accuses them of “negligently designing products that disrupt learning and rewire student behaviour while leaving educators to manage the fallout.” The Boards of Education are seeking $4.5B and asking for a redesign of the platforms “to keep students safe.” School Boards are represented by personal injury firm Neinstein LLP, which has taken the case on contingency. More than 200 school boards in the US have launched similar suits.

The current discussion of social media harms is hardly opening up a new topic.

Eight years ago, I wrote “Is Social Media Better At Breaking Than Making?” That post referred to a Tom Friedman piece in the New York Times (“Social Media: Destroyer or Creator?”). It also included a TED Talk by Wael Ghonim, a former Google employee in Egypt whose Facebook page was credited with helping launch the Arab Spring. In his talk, Ghonim says “Five years ago, I said, ‘If you want to liberate society, all you need is the Internet.’ Today, I believe if we want to liberate society, we first need to liberate the Internet.'”

The talk is worth watching. In my view, it stands the test of time.

But, let’s return to that school board lawsuit. The claim is that these social media platforms “rewire student behaviour while leaving educators to manage the fallout.”

A new book by Jonathan Haidt is attracting some attention on this theme of “rewiring”. “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness” was released last month. He claims that social media platforms are responsible for “displacing physical play and in-person socializing.” How? By “designing a firehose of addictive content that entered through kids’ eyes and ears”. In doing so, “these companies have rewired childhood and changed human development on an almost unimaginable scale”.

A critical review of the book in Nature triggered a lengthy rebuttal on Twitter.

The author of the review in Nature is Candice Odgers, associate dean for research and professor of psychological science and informatics at University of California, Irvine. She has a distinctly Canadian connection. Odgers co-leads international networks on child development for Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto. She says science doesn’t support the thesis of digital technologies rewiring children’s brains, causing “an epidemic of mental illness.” According to Odgers, Haidt’s work confuses correlation with causation. Specifically, she says studies have not found use of social-media predicts or causes depression. Rather, the research shows those who already have mental-health problems use such platforms differently compared to others.

Haidt’s response, a 984 word, 6311 character post on Twitter (X), has attracted more than 1.5 million views. (I remember when tweets were restricted to a maximum of 140 characters.) His post includes links to collections of resources referenced in his book.

That academic debate is certain to continue.

How should social media platforms be regulated? What is the role of schools, teachers, and parents to assume respective responsibilities for kids’ use of devices and apps?

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