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Opinion: Finding a balance between social media and kids' education

Maxine Iannuccilli and Azfar Adib • Special to Montreal Gazette
May 17, 2024

Last month, the Ontario government announced a cellphone and social media ban in the province’s schools. This came after a lawsuit by Ontario school boards against social media platforms, claiming they exacerbate children’s mental-health issues while precipitating a learning crisis. These actions bring into sharp focus the intricate interplay between societal challenges and technological advancements.

Social media platforms like TikTok, Snapchat and Meta, driven by sophisticated artificial intelligence algorithms, wield significant influence over the cognitive and emotional development of young minds, often perpetuating harmful biases and stereotypes in the process, experiments have shown. As our education systems confront the repercussions of social media’s negative effects on children’s mental health and their academic performance, it becomes increasingly imperative to confront the parallel challenges posed by biased AI systems.

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The educational ramifications of social media influence are manifold and far-reaching. The platforms are being called upon to own responsibility for protecting youth against the potential harmful effects of excessive social media use — the likelihood of decreased academic performance, heightened levels of anxiety, depression and social isolation. Moreover, the prevalence of cyberbullying and online harassment further compounds the challenges educators and parents face in safeguarding children’s well-being in an ly digitized world.

Against this backdrop, the lawsuit four school boards filed in March represents a watershed moment in Canada in the discourse surrounding digital responsibility and accountability. (U.S. school boards have filed similar suits.) By holding tech giants accountable for the adverse effects of their platforms on children, education systems are not only seeking restitution but also advocating for systemic change. The algorithmic mechanisms that underpin social platforms’ operations and the opaque nature of algorithmic decision-making further complicate efforts to address these issues.

An alarming aspect of such operations is the collection, storage and commercial usage of children’s personal data by Big Tech platforms, often in violation of the law. For example, last year Microsoft agreed to a $20-million settlement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission following charges that it illegally collected personal information from children without their parents’ consent.

In theory, there is a minimum age limit for use of most social media (generally 13 years old), but it is hardly enforced in practice. This could be changing, however. Last summer, France passed a bill requiring parental consent for under-15s on social media. In Canada, opinions on age limits differ.

Ontario’s latest policy builds on a 2019 ban on cellphones in classrooms, which some studies suggest school boards were inconsistent in implementingQuebec similarly forbade cellphone use by students in classrooms. Premier François Legault recently acknowledged the issue of young people’s overexposure to screens, but said it’s up to parents to limit their kids’ time on digital devices.

The federal government in February introduced the highly anticipated online harms legislation, Bill C-63. This legislation would seek to ensure accountability of online platforms. However, to ensure adequate protection of minors, this bill needs to define and enforce minimum standards for the Big Tech platforms in terms of content accessibility, users’ privacy, and data security.

But it’s important to emphasize it’s not all doom and gloom: The intersection of social media and AI presents opportunities for positive social change. Any new industry goes through a phase of growth and maturity. We are but 20 years into unregulated and uncontrolled growth in the use of social media. We can, and should, now expect platforms to be more accountable and considerate about the well-being of their users.

While algorithms pose significant risks for validating and reinforcing existing societal biases, AI technologies also hold the potential to mitigate and counteract these biases through proactive interventions and algorithmic audits. By harnessing the power of AI, movements like AI for Social Good can pave the way for a more equitable and inclusive future, both in education and technology.

Through collective action, advocacy and innovation, we can empower young people to navigate the digital landscape responsibly, fostering a culture of positive change.

This article was originally published in The Gazette.


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