Saturday, April 20, 2024

Student input left out of AG visit to NHCS to discuss dangers of social media

Attorney General Josh Stein hosted a town hall at the New Hanover County Board of Education Monday to seek parent and community solutions to the dangers of social media for youth. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The attorney general of North Carolina is waging a war against social media and asking local communities to assist.

AG Josh Stein, along with AGs from 41 other states, is suing Meta for its algorithms he says keep kids addicted to social media and access their personal information, a violation of the federal Privacy Act of 1974. The law makes it illegal for companies to obtain information from children under 13 without parental consent.

“Meta has spent billions and billions of dollars constructing a platform and designing an algorithm to addict kids to keep them on the app for more hours of the day,” Stein told Port City Daily at a town hall meeting held at the New Hanover County Schools Board of Education Monday. “We want them to unwind those features so kids are not taught to be addicted.”

While the Meta lawsuit was filed in October, 22 attorneys general, including Stein, filed a brief Dec. 8 in the U.S. Supreme Court asking for states to have authority to regulate online platforms. The broader goal is to enact federal regulations restricting content produced by social media platforms, along with their advertising and access to minors.

Stein made one of many stops around the state calling on parents to provide feedback on their children’s online use and solicit solutions to protect children from the dangers. He also discussed his recent lawsuit against Meta, founded by Mark Zuckerberg, and owner of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.

However, as noted by some parents and officials, one main voice was missing from the conversation: the students. After the meeting, parent and local advocate Angie Kahney pointed out her disappointment in the lack of young voices in attendance, as they’re most affected. Stein’s lawsuit states 95% of minors ages 13 to 17 use at least one social media platform. 

Kahney claims students have been repeatedly discouraged from truly speaking their minds, which leads them to not wanting to participate in district events. She specifically referenced Student Voice, a program intended to provide students a say in district decision-making. 

“I doubt they even knew about the event,” she told PCD. 

While the event was open to the public, it was promoted as a discussion among parents, teachers, caregivers and local leaders about how to better protect children online.

Hosted by Stein, not the school district, panelists included NHCS board chair Pete Wildeboer, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, New Hanover County Commissioner Chair Bill Rivenbark and NHCS Superintendent Charles Foust. 

Only two students were in attendance out of a roughly 40-person crowd. 

According to Kahney, Student Voice originally launched with 30 members but is down to a handful after being silenced by the board and prevented from making real change.

NHCS spokesperson Christina Beam confirmed to PCD, 43 students were accepted into Student Voice during this school year and 25 regularly attend monthly meetings. Students are granted 5 minutes to speak during each monthly board meeting. 

Five school board members denied the allegation the kids were discouraged from attending; Chair Wildeboer and Vice Chair Melissa Mason didn’t respond to whether they thought students were silenced.

The event was held at 2 p.m. when most students were still in school.

“I imagine the timing of the town hall would have made it difficult for students to attend, but as a board member I would never discourage students from participating,” Stephanie Walker told PCD.

Walker added they should be included in the conversation “because they may have some solutions.” Most board members agreed, and Saffo, Foust and Wildeboer implied they intend to hold future events to continue the conversation with students.

Board Chair Wildeboer even suggested forming a student safety committee.

Stephanie Kraybill noted rumors of discouraging student participation could have stemmed from a Dec. 5 board meeting. Students wanted to attend Tuesday’s policy committee meeting at 1 p.m., but some board members said they shouldn’t since it would involve missing school. However, the board ultimately left it up to the students to decide.

Board member Pat Bradford agreed there was not a lot of age diversity in the crowd Monday and implied it was more of a “campaign event” in a text message to PCD; Stein is running for governor as a Democrat in next year’s election.

“It seems like they would have had the students who use those phones come to speak about it and their own use of social media,” Bradford wrote. “That was the stated purpose of the panel.”

Stein said during the panel that many schools are implementing a phone collection at the beginning of each school day so all students are phone-free. He said it has led to an increase in concentration and better grades.

Once the floor opened to audience feedback, parents had opposing views on the use of phones during school. Some said it’s a distraction and want the school to crack down on removing them from the classroom.

Yet, others said their children need to be able to reach their parents and guardians, and also pointed out social media is the fastest way for them to receive communication about potentially dangerous situations in school.

Kahney noted at the meeting children learn about lockdowns or fights in the hall, for example, from Snapchat. She said she works as an advocate with other students at Laney High School and receives multiple calls from them when lockdowns are issued. As a result, she said she would never send her child to school without a phone.

“New Hanover County Schools aren’t safe and have failed to keep students safe,” she said.

Kahney was referencing the countless number of students who were sexually abused by teachers like Michael Kelly or Nicholas Oates in the school system, some of whom sent naked pictures via phones or exposed children to pornography online.

CATCH UP: District, school board silent on New Kelly lawsuit

According to Stein’s lawsuit, 15% of all minors under 17 have experienced some form of sexual abuse online. Due to how easy it is to share images on the internet, the suit noted child exploitation increased 35% from 2020 to 2021. This was a time when most kids were not in school due to the pandemic and spending more time on their phones and computers.

“It’s clearly complex,” Stein told PCD, regarding phones in classrooms. “I think that’s why there’s been some paralysis on not knowing how to handle it going forward.”

One parent said she works really hard to keep her children away from technology and would advocate for students having to hand in their phones while at school.

“What can we do locally, quickly to stop this?” she asked. “There are parents doing their best and fighting an uphill battle because there’s not enough support from the school.”

“The reason why we have technology in schools is that it’s part of the textbook,” Foust responded.

He pointed to the district’s one-to-one initiative, meaning every child is issued a computer, which allows them access to necessary course information and platforms. Assistant superintendent of technology and digital learning Dawn Brison told PCD students are blocked from using social media on all NHCS computers.

“As far as how a cell phone is used, I think that’s a bigger picture,” Foust said. “It’s not one, I’ll be honest, I can answer today.”

However, he mentioned earlier in the meeting that as it relates to technology, students need to learn the lasting impact words and photos online can have — not only when it comes to their own futures but also on their peers.

According to a study in Stein’s lawsuit, 12- to 15-year-olds who spend more than three hours per day using social media have an increased risk of poor mental health outcomes, including depression and anxiety.

Janet Tucker, social worker at GLOW Academy, said at the town hall it’s not just adults taking advantage of children online, but social media leading to more student bullying — at a “record-high” among girls specifically.

“I really worry about the young women in our community and the impact social media is having on them,” she said.

Stein’s lawsuit states females ages 11 to 13 report more unhappiness in life with increased screen time, particularly social media use. It says 9% experienced increased depression and 12% increased anxiety.

Middle-schooler Atiksh Bhan said lack of social interaction is a bigger part of the problem with excess social media use. Children don’t talk to each other as much and simply stare at their phones when they’re together, Atiksh said. He and his 18-year-old brother, Samin, launched the Look Upp app two years ago, which encourages users to put down their phones when they’re with friends or family.

“So the initiator presses a button and it starts a zone; everyone within a 6-meter radius who has the app will get a notification to ‘please, put your phone down,’” Bhan explained to Port City Daily. “When they do, they start collecting points, which are translated into real-life rewards, such as a free coffee or Krispy Kreme donut.”

He said the app has been used by New Hanover County students, and in total, people have logged more than half-a-million minutes of engaging in personal interactions without their phones.

The brothers are also partnering with UNCW to launch a Look Upp lab to help collect research and data on how people interact with their phones to find solutions to address the issues.

Multiple suggestions were made at Stein’s meeting to educate students on the aftereffects social media can have on young minds.

Former school board member and educator Judy Justice, who called social media creators “abusers,” suggested implementing courses into school curriculum. The purpose would be to explain the impacts social media use has on the brain and how the algorithms work to draw children in.

UNCW art professor Anne Lindberg offered a similar solution and said children should be taught about the role of dopamine — a neurotransmitter that triggers feelings of pleasure. One way dopamine can be activated is by likes and positive reinforcement often utilized on using social media. But in the book “Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence” by psychiatrist Dr. Anna Lembke, which Lindberg references, there needs to be a balance to control the 24/7 overconsumption of the digital world.

Lembke calls the smartphone a “modern day hypodermic needle” and explores scientific research on how “relentless pursuit of pleasure leads to pain and what to do about it.”

“It’s no different from the impact on adults who watch Fox or MSNBC,” Stein responded. “What they’re doing each is just pushing that button on your head to outrage you. The more outraged you are, the more you view it and tune in. It’s all about eyeballs on the screen.”

Stein agreed kids need additional education on modern-day problems. He suggested educating children on coping mechanisms, which can be applied to any situation when tensions arise — from underage drinking to bullying to drug use. 

For instance, he said fentanyl distribution is being targeted toward children to purchase on social media. Nearly half of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s fentanyl investigations — not specifically involving kids — from May to September 2022 had direct ties to social media, Stein’s suit states. 

“It all begins with the same root: Do you have the self confidence to say ‘no,’ for whatever reason you want to say no?” Stein asked. “Kids have to learn that. And there’s no reason we can’t integrate that into curriculum.”

He also said forming a “trusted relationship” between parents and children, as well as teachers and students, is key to encouraging kids to make safe, responsible decisions online.

Stein’s lawsuit claims social media use is associated with increased risks of self-harm, suicide and low self-esteem, and alleges platforms make it easier to exploit children and expose them to drugs, sex trafficking and fraud. 

He told Port City Daily it’s not going to be a fast resolution.

“However long it takes to get a judgment, I can’t speak to,” he said. “But we’re going to keep pushing for this case as quickly as we can because our kids need our help as quickly as possible.”

Mayor Saffo likened the litigation on Meta to the opioid settlements that resulted from Stein and other attorneys general around the country suing major pharmaceutical companies for their roles in sparking the opioid crisis. 

“Only because we took them to court did they agree to settle. We’ve seen it in the tobacco industry, now we’re seeing it with this business,” Saffo said at the panel. “They don’t care about kids, they don’t care about the communities; they don’t care about us.”

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