—- By Chuck Chiang, The Canadian Press


SURREY, B.C. — British Columbia is restricting the use of cellphones in schools and targeting social media companies in an attempt to reduce the harm they cause to children, which Premier David Eby likened to the damage from tobacco and opioids.

Eby said Friday the province would launch services to remove predatory images from the internet used for cyberbullying and extortion, as well as introduce legislation in the spring to allow B.C. to sue social media companies for costs relating to “population-level” harms.

The province said it would work with school districts to implement policies to restrict students’ classroom cellphone use by the start of the next school year.

Eby said the moves are in direct response to incidents such as the death of 12-year-old Carson Cleland in Prince George, who police say killed himself after falling prey to online sextortion last October.

“Bottom line is that through an app on his phone, a stranger from around the world was able to contact him, was able to get him to send pictures, was able to threaten him and extort him,” Eby said, his voice rising sharply. “And there was no protection in place.

“Can you imagine any other situation in our society where an environment is set up for kids where a stranger is able to walk in, take pictures of a child, threaten their safety, and the person who is providing that space — the company that is providing that space — says ‘we have no responsibility here?'”

Ryan Cleland and Nicola Smith, Carson’s parents, spoke at a news conference announcing the measures on Friday and described their son’s death through tears.

“We held him in our arms until he took his last breath and passed away,” Cleland said, his voice cracking.

“We stand here today as two broken parents, trying to do everything to make sure this doesn’t happen to another family, to another child, to another person.”

Smith urged young victims of cyberbullying and sextortion to not fear getting into trouble or being judged, and to reach out to loved ones and the authorities.

“Asking these three words are probably the hardest thing you’ll ever do in your life, but it is life-changing for you and for your loved ones: ‘I need help,'” Smith said through sobs.

“We only wish that Carson knew that we loved him more than anything in the world, and that we would do anything to keep him safe.”

Eby said the major change proposed in the legislation being brought forward in the spring is the ability of the province to use “population-level data” to pursue recourse from social media companies.

The premier said statistics on anxiety, eating disorders and injuries from dangerous stunts could be used to pursue the companies if a link could be demonstrated with “the behaviour of these companies through their negligent design of the algorithms” and the presentation of extreme content.

“That is how the tobacco litigation worked,” Eby said. “That’s how the opioid litigation worked, and that is the design of this law.

“What it does do is to connect the circle between the decision by the company not to address the harm they know they are causing — their own internal research tells them they’re causing to kids — with the costs that are incurred at a financial level by the province of British Columbia to clean up the mess that they leave behind.”

The province said money recovered from companies through legal action could be used to provide treatment and counselling programs, as well as fund monitoring systems and educational programs about social-media harms.

Meta Platforms Inc., which operates Facebook and Instagram, as well as YouTube owner and operator Alphabet Inc. have not responded to requests for comment.

In 1998, B.C. became the first jurisdiction in Canada to sue for the recovery of tobacco-related health costs, and the process has since expanded to all 10 provinces and led to multiple major tobacco distributors filing for creditor protection in 2019.

B.C. is also leading the effort to recover health costs related to the sale and marketing of opioid-based pain medicines by a number of pharmaceutical firms.

One company, Purdue Pharma Canada, reached a $150-million settlement covering all Canadian provinces and territories in 2022.

The province also announced it would launch a service Monday to both support victims of cyberbullying and sextortion as well as to order the removal of intimate images from the internet if a case is reported.

B.C. Attorney General Niki Sharma said the services would help people, especially young adults, get their private images taken down from websites.

“In my view, the onus is on the platforms once they receive an order to do the work to take down the image,” Sharma said, noting the companies have the technology needed to quickly scrub their sites of offending pictures.

On the cellphone ban, Education Minister Rachna Singh said the devices can distract children from “focused learning” in school.

Eby said he was aware the cellphone decision would be unpopular with some parents who want to be able to reach their children at any time, as well as teachers who may have incorporated the devices into their lessons.

But he said concerns about safety and educational outcomes have reached a point where the province must act.

“As a father of a nine-year-old, I can tell you that in Grade 4 there are two kids with cellphones at school,” Eby said. “The reason that I know this is that my son Ezra reminds me regularly.

“He tells me that at recess he and his pals gather around the cellphones and watch videos together, of things online. I have no idea what they watch. There is no parent there regulating, overseeing what content is being shared with my child at school.”

The province said the restriction of cellphones would help students “develop healthy habits around technology and social media use in their everyday lives.”

The measures come after Eby said last month that the government was planning changes this year to honour Carson’s memory.

Mounties in Prince George said officers went to the boy’s home on Oct. 12 and found him with a gunshot wound, and their investigation later determined he killed himself as a result of online sextortion.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 26, 2024.