A ‘boring and pointless’ education.
That’s what students at Henry E. Lackey High School in Indian Head tell their English teacher, Nicholas Gray, they’re receiving. At the same time, they distract themselves with TikTok videos, “snaps” on Snapchat, and endless scrolls through Instagram during class.
“It is difficult to convince [students] that learning is more impactful and important than the brand new video that will entertain them,” Gray said.
With that thought in mind, Charles County this month joined nine other Maryland school districts in a lawsuit against the world’s social media giants: Google, Meta, ByteDance, and Snap Inc.
“Hopefully, this lawsuit provides pressure for some action to create better products geared toward children,” said Maria Navarro, Superintendent of Charles County Public Schools.
A classroom distraction
The lawsuit accused several social media platforms of targeting and manipulating youth. Hence, they stay engaged excessively – precisely what educators see in Charles County classrooms.
“[Social media is] a huge distraction in our schools and our classrooms,” said Cheryl Davis, principal of Henry E. Lackey High School.
Davis said that the teachers do their part to plan practical instructional uses for technology in the classroom, but personal devices get in the way.
Gray said he prohibits using cell phones during instructional times and tries to create engaging lessons so that students will not be tempted to use their devices or go on social media. However, Gray said the most significant problem plaguing his students is self-control and their failure to regulate personal behavior.
“Students are lacking the ability to express their emotions positively,” Davis said. “We see a lot more negative expressions.”
Students have gotten more angry and aggressive, Davis said. In a developmental part of their lives, they often fail to pause for a moment and look for resources or constructive ways to express their emotions.
“There is no respite,” Gray said. “Students leave for the day, and the talking/anger continues onto Instagram or Snapchat, and then the students come to school upset over what is on social media.”
Several Charles County educators said more physical altercations have occurred because of social media conflicts.
“Snapchat scares me,” said Brian Street, a father of two Piccowaxen middle schoolers.
“I’ve seen several fights at school on Snapchat.”
On top of that, two staff members at St. Charles High School were injured Thursday after they intervened in a physical altercation between students that started over a social media post, according to Principal Tammika Little’s letter to parents.
“Please monitor your child’s electronic devices and social media accounts,” said Little.
The mental health impact
Not surprisingly, school officials in Charles County and elsewhere are alarmed at how social media affects child development and mental health. That concern is also reflected in the lawsuit, alleging that companies are aware of the platforms’ negative impacts on children’s mental health, but they choose to prioritize profit.
Students undergo a developmental change from elementary to middle school, shifting their focus from their parents to their peer group. Navarro said this is when children start pushing their boundaries and understanding how to become adults.
As students become more self-sufficient, they begin building confidence – but social media usage during this stage can interrupt a child’s growth, said Navarro.
“A fake reality, at those pivotal developmental ages, has more of an impact on behavioral health,” Navarro said. “It also isolates you.”
Navarro said social media augments children’s insecurities at pivotal ages, and research proves that point. Researchers at Instagram in 2021 found their platform made one in three girls feel worse about their bodies, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Moreover, the Covid-19 pandemic further isolated children and left many in a more fragile mental state. According to the Centers for Disease ControlDC, in 2021, suicide was the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 14.
Charles County educators said social media contributes to some young people’s mental health crises. Inappropriate social media interactions continue to disrupt the county’s buildings because children these ages are not developmentally ready for the responsibility, said Davis.
“Students lack the maturity to handle social media,” Davis said.
That being the case, Davis said schools must prioritize mental health or their true purpose will not be achieved.
“We are here to educate students,” Davis said. “If students are not in the right mindset, then it’s much more difficult for them to access education.”
Searching for solutions
While voicing support for the lawsuit, Charles County educators are looking elsewhere for more prompt solutions to the problems social media causes in the classroom.
Davis pushed for parents to be a part of the solution.
“You pay for the phone, you own the phone, put some apps on there that allow you to control access,” Davis said.
Davis said parents should be monitoring their kids’ devices to ensure they’re safe, and it is not just her that feels this way.
“It’s not a school thing, it’s a parent thing,” said Street.
Street said while he monitors his kids’ social media usage, it is the parent’s decision on how active they want to control it.
Navarro said CCPS has many resources for parents to learn how to be tech-savvy so they know how to keep their children safe. In addition to limiting screen time, she said parents should be encouraging their kids to physically play, talk, and participate in sports and extracurricular activities with other kids.
Navarro said that allowing children to have devices is a parent’s choice.
“My job is to inform and educate them about the implications of those decisions,” Navarro said.
Navarro said she wants students to reach their full potential, but social media makes it harder for them to do that right now.
That’s where the lawsuit could help. Navarro said that if the district gets any compensation from this lawsuit, the school system intends to expand resources for the growing behavioral health needs.
And even in these early stages, Navarro said, the lawsuit serves an essential purpose.
“It sends a message,” she said.
The message is that everyone – from social media companies to educators to parents to students – must be alert to the harm that social media can do to young people.