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Hackett: The social media dilemma

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I spend hours every week, scrolling endlessly through Instagram reels.

Apparently, experts call it “doom scrolling” — as if I didn’t already know it was bad enough.

It’s an awful habit. I avoided getting TikTok on my phone, as in the early days of the pandemic when I was first introduced to the app, I spent far too much time on it.

It’s also why I don’t have Facebook on my phone, but in reality the time not on Facebook is just replaced with other social media apps like Instagram or Twitter.

In part, selfishly, I’m hoping that writing this down will help me guilt myself into spending less time on these apps.

But this week, four school boards in Ontario launched a $4.5 billion lawsuit against Meta (which owns Instagram), Snapchat and TikTok.

I think the number, in some sense, has a wow factor. It got my attention first thing Thursday morning, and by the end of the day, almost every conversation I had revolved around it.

Here’s how it is described in a news release.

“The fallout of compulsive use of social media amongst students is causing massive strains on the four school boards’ finite resources, including additional needs for in-school mental health programming and personnel, increased IT costs, and additional administrative resources,” the school boards wrote in a news release Thursday.

The four Ontario boards, in their statements of claim, say the platforms have “deliberately sought to draw in students and prolong their use of social media, knowing school boards would have to deal with the effects on youth and their mental health.”

They also allege the social media companies 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,” which they say warrants punitive damages.

These apps are addicting. We don’t know all the long-term impacts of constant access to them, but in a short period of time, we’ve learned that they can be harmful to children’s long-term development. They can also be dangerous, used by predators, and used as a form of harassment like bullying.

If you have not seen the movie, Social Delimma, I highly encourage you to watch it. The analogy they use, is that it’s like the social media companies have access to your brain and once you are on the app, they dial up the content that they know you are interested in to keep you there. And if you are trying to ignore the app or your phone, push notifications or content on other apps may push you back to it. In my mind, it’s sinister — to the companies, it’s just business.

With their developing minds, having access to these apps 24/7 can’t be good. As an adult, I know how easily they can influence me and how quickly I can spiral into dark places from the content that is coming through the algorithm.

Teachers try their best to limit phone use in class, but I feel like they’re fighting a losing battle. Parents try and limit screen time, but with most of us spending five-plus hours a day on our phones, are we really the best example of what a good relationship with our devices should be?

The companies sure as heck aren’t going to do anything about it — they have no impetus to do so. They make billions of profit from users being on their platform as much as possible. They’ll deny any responsibility.

Which brings us back to the beginning. How is a lawsuit going to fix anything? If these companies pay out one school board or 100, it isn’t going to make kids any less addicted to their platforms. That ship has already sailed.

How do we put the genie back in the bottle?

You can’t and I think we all know that.

But I think having a better understanding of these platforms’ end goal helps with the realization that they do not have the consumer in mind — it’s profits.

The better we understand the long-term impacts, the more evidence we have to help convince kids that spending less time on social media isn’t the end of the world.

We also need to keep in mind that kids are smarter than we give them credit for sometimes. While they may not understand how addicted they are to these platforms or what that means for their long-term health, some have at least been able to use them for good.

Kids can use these platforms to be more creative than our generation would have ever imagined possible and it can also lead to strong social connections. To some extent, they can help build confidence that kids can then carry out into the real world.

The U.S. Surgeon General found in a study that a majority of adolescents report that social media helps them feel more accepted (58 per cent), like they have people who can support them through tough times (67 per cent), like they have a place to show their creative side (71 per cent), and more connected to what’s going on in their friends’ lives (80 per cent).

Finding a balance between negative classroom outcomes and positive peer relationships is a vital balance that society doesn’t seem to be achieving.

Over the last 10 years, kids have embraced social media in a way that I don’t think even the companies that started it considered possible.

In the next 10, it will be up to those kids to help protect the next generations from the harms that they face as we start to understand better what a healthy relationship with social media and our phones really means.

Byron Hackett is the Managing Editor of the Red Deer Advocate and a Regional Editor for Black Press Media.



Byron Hackett

About the Author: Byron Hackett

Byron has been the sports reporter at the advocate since December of 2016. He likes to spend his time in cold hockey arenas accompanied by luke warm, watered down coffee.
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