Schools say kids are compulsively using social media. But experts say they learned from the best

Several Ontario school boards are suing some of the largest social media companies, alleging the way they're designed has negatively rewired the way children think and behave. But some experts say the onus is also on parents to reflect on their own social media use.

Several Ont. school boards are suing the social media giants for $4.5B

A mother and her two young children takes a 'selfie' outside
A mother and her two children take a 'selfie' in this 2020 file photo. Nearly half of parents admit they spend too much time on their smartphones, according to new data from Pew Research Center. (Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images)

What happens when the generation of kids whose parents shared all their milestones online gets older and starts using social media themselves?

Several Ontario school boards are suing some of the largest social media companies, alleging the way they're designed has negatively rewired the way children think and behave.

But some experts say the onus is also on parents to reflect on their own social media use.

Not only are parents modelling social media habits to their children with their own excessive use — half of the parents surveyed in a new study admitted spending too much time on their phones, for instance — but they're also sharing information about their own kids online, said Emma Duerden, an assistant professor and Canada Research Chair in neuroscience and learning disorders at Western University.

"They're showing their children, 'This is what you do as an adult.'"

And those children are learning that their parents are getting a lot of attention from it, she said.

WATCH | TDSB chair says social media giants are knowingly harming children: 

Social media giants 'knowingly' harming children, TDSB chair says in wake of lawsuit

2 months ago
Duration 5:53
Four of Ontario's largest school boards, including the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), have launched lawsuits against social media giants behind Meta, Snapchat and TikTok for allegedly causing harm to students. Metro Morning host David Common spoke with TDSB chair Rachel Chernos Lin about the action.

On Thursday, four major Ontario school boards announced they're seeking $4.5 billion in total damages from Meta Platforms, Snap and ByteDance, which respectively operate Facebook and Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok.

The allegations have not been proven in court. CBC Toronto has reached out to the companies named for comment. In a statement, Snap said that its platform was designed to be different from traditional social media, without the typical likes or public comments.

A TikTok spokesperson highlighted the platform's safeguards, such as parental controls.

"Our team of safety professionals continually evaluate emerging practices and insights to support teens' well-being and will continue working to keep our community safe," the spokesperson said in an email statement.

In a news release, the school boards alleged students' heavy use of social media is causing an "attention, learning and mental health crisis."

"The intricately crafted and inherently addictive nature of social media platforms can hamper a student's capacity to absorb knowledge," Brendan Browne, director of education for the Toronto Catholic District School Board, said in the news release.

Parent social media use and 'sharenting'

But it's not just kids being drawn in by the addictive nature of social media.

Earlier this month, Pew Research Center released a report on how parents and teens approach screen time after polling a dyad of 1,453 U.S. teens aged 13 to 17, and their parents. 

While 31 per cent of the parents also said they were often or sometimes distracted by their phones when having conversations with their teens, 46 per cent of the children said their parents were distracted by their phones when talking to them.

"When it comes to distracted parenting, parents paint a rosier picture than teens," the researchers noted.

And then there's "sharenting." 

A term to describe parents sharing their children's lives online, sharenting has existed since the 2000s, with the rise of so-called mommy bloggers and family influencers. But it increased dramatically during the pandemic, researchers have found. 

As people became more comfortable with virtual events, sharenting became increasingly normalized, note the authors of a 2022 study published in the Journal of Consumer Affairs. The term was even added to the Oxford English Dictionary that year.

As we've come to live more of our lives online, our children have become part of that, said Leah Plunkett, author of Sharenthood: Why We Should Think before We Talk about Our Kids Online.

And the fact is that posting content about our children online can be really good clickbait, she added.

"Kids are cute. They're funny. In many instances, they're sort of natural comedians and performers," Plunkett, who is also the executive director of Harvard Law School Online, told CBC News. "They also ... can't really say no."

The dark side of social media and kids

Sharenting harms children on several levels, Plunkett said.

It could have potential legal and criminal consequences for kids, like identity theft or fraud, she said. There are also potential consequences for their future opportunities, such as what employers will find online when these children grow up and apply for jobs.

LISTEN | The dark side of family influencers: 
Vanessa had her entire life put online during the 2000s “mommy blogger” era. She’s in her 20s now. And as she tells influence culture journalist Fortesa Latifi, her life was anything but glamorous. The TikTok generation of child influencers is a multi-billion dollar industry. And with that money, comes concerns of exploitation. Fortesa Latifi recently published a three part series and mini-doc for Cosmopolitan called “The Sharenting Reckoning”. She joins us to talk about it.

It also harms their sense of self by depriving them of the privacy they need to play, cause mischief and make mistakes, she said.

There's also been a reckoning of sorts as some kids have grown up and shared their experiences. In a recent investigation by Cosmopolitan, for instance, one person (who wasn't identified by name) said being the child of an influencer was like having a full-time job. 

"People are worried that their privacy is exploited, that their vulnerable moments are exploited, that they're going to grow up with this online footprint that they didn't ask for, sometimes reaching back to gestation, which is really striking," journalist Fortesa Latifi, who wrote the aforementioned investigation, recently told CBC's Front Burner.

Social media platforms are designed to be addictive, rewarding users for their engagement, Duerden told CBC News. And studies, including hers, have shown links between screen time use in children and disrupted sleep, more symptoms of depression and anxiety, and effects on attention and memory.

What Duerden found more specifically to social media is that it taps into the brain systems involved in reward and punishment. It also exposes their developing brains to early life trauma and stress, not only through cyberbullying and inappropriate content, but also by affecting their comparison, self-esteem and addiction and dependency systems.

"It's very scary," she said.

WATCH | How social media affects kids' brains: 

What social media scrolling is doing to kids’ brains

6 months ago
Duration 7:52
With most children and teenagers spending hours a day on a smartphone, CBC’s Christine Birak breaks down what research shows about how using social media is changing kids’ behaviour, if it's rewiring their brains and what can be done about it.

Given those effects, both Duerden and Plunkett say social media companies need to be held accountable, too.

Which is is why the four Ontario schools boards are taking the social media giants to court, alleging their products were "negligently designed for compulsive use."

"A number of actors in the social media and broader digital sectors failed to uphold their end of the responsibility and accountability bargain by making it difficult, if not impossible, for people to see what they're agreeing to," Plunkett said.


Natalie Stechyson

Senior writer and editor

Natalie Stechyson is a senior writer and editor at CBC News. She's worked in newsrooms across the country, including the Globe and Mail, Postmedia News, Calgary Herald and Brunswick News. Before joining CBC News, she was the Parents editor at HuffPost Canada, where she won a silver Canadian Online Publishing Award.

With files from CBC Toronto