Thursday, June 8, 2023

The School System Fights Back


“The Howard County School system is suing.”

If you saw those words without any other description, who would you guess was on the other end of the suit? It’s hard for me to imagine. In fact, I can’t think of any time in recent memory that HCPSS sued anybody.

Scratch that. In 2020 they joined a lawsuit against JUUL Labs, Inc in response to student vaping. 

Well, they have joined a new lawsuit.

Howard County Schools sue social media companies, alleging a role in youth mental health crisis, Ethan Ehrenhaft, Howard County Times

The Howard County Public School System filed a lawsuit Friday against Meta, Google, ByteDance and Snap Inc., alleging the social media companies have exacerbated a mental health crisis among its student body of more than 57,000 as the district tries to maintain adequate mental health services and supports.

There was a time when I was hopeful about social media when it came to young people and education. Perhaps I was trying too hard not to be the over-the-hill adult who decries the next big thing that “those crazy kids” are into. I don’t think I understood  1) how intensely the social media business model focuses on young people and basically stripmines their brains and emotions and 2) how younger brains can sustain both long term changes and possibly even damage from constant social media engagement.

If I, as an adult, have sometimes struggled to maintain healthy boundaries with social media, how can we expect kids - - whose brains are still developing - - to be able to do that? 

From the article:

“Across the nation, school systems like Howard County encounter the difficulty of catering to students’ needs while providing an exceptional education and cultivating a positive learning environment,” attorney Philip Federico said in the release. “This lawsuit is an effort to make social media companies liable for their contribution to the mental health crisis in young people, and to reimburse the Howard County Public School System for the financial strain caused by the defendants’ exploitative platforms.”

I think exploitative is a good choice of words. Too often I’ve seen the statement: if you’re not paying for the service, you’re the product. All of us who engage in social media are, to some extent, products. But young people are the most vulnerable of all to that kind of exploitation. It’s a sucker’s game.

On the other hand, I take issue to Federico’s use of the word catering in this context. Schools recognize needs, assess needs, meet needs. One caters to whims, desires, the demands of the well-to-do. There’s no catering involved here. Schools are not in the catering business. They’re in the meet-you-where-you-are-business.

Dan Rodricks of the Baltimore Sun has written an opinion piece on both the lawsuit and the issues that prompted it.

Dan Rodricks: Harford, Howard social media lawsuits offer stop-and-think moment about how we live | COMMENTARY, Baltimore Sun

Yes. Let’s stop and think. Rodricks makes some good points and does an especially good job at relating how social media use in tweens and teens is linked to carefully written code that stimulates dopamine release in the brain. Though Rodericks describes dopamine as “the body’s chemical source of pleasure,”it’s really more complicated than that.

From WebMD

Dopamine plays a role in how we feel pleasure. It's a big part of our unique human ability to think and plan. It helps us strive, focus, and find things interesting.

This isn’t as simple as stimulating a pleasure center (like a rat connected to electrodes in an experiment.) Think of why kids are in school in the first place. This kind of highly refined, social media manipulation is interfering with their thinking, planning, striving, focusing, and finding things (that aren’t social media) interesting. Imagine how that affects learning, school life, and building human relationships.

Elsewhere in his Twitter feed Rodericks links to this article from the Atlantic:

Get Phones Out of Schools Now: They impede learning, stunt relationships, and lessen belonging. They should be banned Jonathan Haidt, Atlantic 

Truth in advertising: I haven’t had time to read it yet. I found it interesting that Rodericks’ most immediate response to the article was:

But, with the threat of school shootings, would you send your kid to school without a phone?

So, what do we do? How do we use our “stop and think moment” and not waste it? Can schools use money from lawsuits such as these to develop and implement a kind of a counseling program that helps young people regain a healthy sense of their own brains and lives? Can social media companies be required to operate without such intense manipulation of kids’ brains? 

What would that look like? Can we make it happen?

Village Green/Town² Comments

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