‘Not my problem’

If only life’s troubles were so easily dismissed. We long ago ran out of digits counting the number of times that people seemed indifferent to the plight of others. “Not my problem,” many would say.

Gambling, drugs, homelessness, marital strife, kids with troubles, learning deficits, financial troubles, drinking problems – it’s a list of life challenges that are often ignored, unless it strikes close to home. Then it’s a problem and it’s been our experience that those finally confronted with some hardships have it worse than anyone else before them. But that’s another story.

Last week we were heartened to learn that school trustees in the Toronto area voted to support their school boards joining in a lawsuit against Big Tech. The suit, noted on page three of the Advertiser this week, will stand the test of a court and face the backlash of tech giants worth more than many small countries. Chances are the suit will go nowhere, but we appreciate the fact someone in a position of authority in Canada has finally chosen to step up and challenge corporations that care far more about money than their patrons.

According to Doug Ford, the lawsuit is nonsense. “Let’s focus on the kids, not about this other nonsense,” he said at a media scrum. But we guess that brings the conversation full circle this week – life’s troubles can’t easily be dismissed. Had Premier Ford, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and politicians across the land been looking out for kids, four Toronto school boards wouldn’t have to take up this fight. Forty-four states in the U.S. have also sued, alleging that these companies know their products are harmful. 

It brings to mind Big Tobacco and the first lawsuit in 1994, brought by an Attorney General in Mississippi by the name of Mike Moore. The impact of a corporation’s product on the general public has a cost that should be paid for by that corporation. The case had to start somewhere.

The result eventually was a master settlement agreement that included monetary reparations, but more importantly, laid bare that Big Tobacco knew its products were addictive and that they targeted young people as consumers. They knew what they were doing – hooking kids so they could have a customer for life.

Flash forward and flip into the digital world where young people have been targeted. Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee came clean that yes, the company knew what it was doing. Applications and notifications were designed to draw customers in. Data and analytics were used to keep the engagement ball rolling. Within that context, young people lacking discipline have succumbed to usage far and above what would be considered appropriate. Approximately one third spend five or more hours a day on social media. A similar number of young people report poor or fair mental health with a quarter of them describing their state as perilous bordering on distress.

Locally, the separate and public school boards are staying out of this current conversation. Communication officers, as noted in our story, either are taking a wait-and-see attitude or entirely ignoring the lawsuit. That is the safe bet, but also a troubling version of “not my problem.”

Teachers within the school boards – despite the concerns experts have with social media – have incorporated social media as an element of the curriculum. One example that had us scratching our head at the time was creating an Instagram post to capture the impact of Confederation on social disparities at the time – chiefly for women, Indigenous and Black people. While examination of such topics has merit, to believe for a second such subjects could be distilled down to a social media post is pure folly at best. At its worst, it reduces history to memes and catchy slogans. That isn’t learning – that’s marketing and propaganda.

Not my problem? 

It is and it will be.