B.C. to restrict cell phones in schools to keep kids safe against ‘online threats’

B.C.’s Premier has announced school districts will need to restrict cellphone use in classrooms by September, saying the devices are impacting the education and wellbeing of kids.

B.C. is restricting the use of cell phones in schools across the province.

The B.C. government says it is making good on a promise Premier David Eby made to a family affected by online extortion, by announcing enhanced measures to keep children safe from “online threats.”

The province will also be launching services to “remove images from the internet and pursue predators,” and introduce legislation to “hold social media companies accountable” for the harms they have “caused.”

This includes enabling the government to sue companies, like Facebook and Instagram, who he says have negligently designed algorithms to cause harm.

Eby could not provide details about how exactly cell phone restrictions would play out in schools across B.C., saying it would be up to local districts to make those decisions.

However, he did say that the expectation is that cell phones will not be used in classrooms unless they are part of an accommodation for students with disabilities.

The measures come after Eby had a conversation with parents Ryan Cleland and Nicola Smith whose 12-year-old son, Carson, died by suicide after falling prey to online sextortion.

“Today, I am making good on a commitment that I made to Carson’s family … which is that Carson’s death would not be in vain; that our government would step up to support the heroic work done by the Cleland family to raise awareness about [online sextortion],” Eby said.

The province says significant research shows frequent cell phone interruption in the classrooms, social media platforms, and predators who “seek to exploit young children … all present significant risk to young people.”

The Ministry of Education and Child Care states that studies have found children’s mental health and physical safety can “suffer as a result of body image distortion, cyberbullying, images shared without consent, and disturbing instances of sextortion.”

On Monday, Jan. 29, the province’s services to help British Columbians stop and prevent the distribution of sexual images of themselves will be launched. The province says it will also help victims of all ages pursue damages from perpetrators.

“These services will improve access to justice and offer a clear path to legal action,” the ministry said.

Attorney General Niki Sharma says the province expects companies to take images down “quickly” once an order has been issued.

“When it comes to social media companies, this legislation would enable the government to recover costs caused by harms on children and adults alike associated with their platforms and algorithms. The government could use those recovered funds to provide treatment and counselling programs and putting in place monitoring systems and educational programs about the harms of using these products and services,” the ministry explained.

Sharma explains the non-consensual distribution of explicit images is a form of sexual violence that can have devastating impacts on victims, “especially if the victim is a young adult.”

“I want to be clear, the creation or distribution of an explicit image of a minor is always a crime. A minor cannot consent,” Sharma said Friday.

“Through the Intimate Images Protection Act, we’re taking action to keep people and especially young adults safe, sharing, creating, or threatening to distribute images is wrong.

“Those who have had their private images shared or have had fake explicit images created of them can feel embarrassment, shame, and fear, and they may even find it difficult to talk to those closest to them,” she added. “Until now, if they’ve tried to fight back against their perpetrators, they would have had to rely on the criminal and civil legal options that were often limited, complex, and expensive. But not anymore.”

Sharma notes the province will also be launching a victim support program, in partnership with the Ministry of Public Safety, that will offer victims “emotional support or help with applying to the civil resolution tribunal.”

She minced no words when speaking of those who commit this kind of sexual abuse.

“There’s no excuse for your actions. You are violating a person’s privacy and dignity, and committing sexualized violence, which is a cost on real people’s lives. This vile behavior is against the law and there are serious consequences. If it is not your image, you don’t get to decide who sees it.”

Speaking with Eby and Sharma, Carson’s parents, Ryan and Nicola, spoke of their son.

A 12-year-old who loved hunting and fishing, camping, and swimming, “he’s the kind of kid that would go out of his way to help absolutely anybody that needed it,” Ryan said through tears.

“He was one of those people that no matter who you were, he put a smile on your face,” he continued.

Ryan shared that on Oct. 12, 2023, Carson was contacted by a stranger on Snapchat — an instant messaging app — who was pretending to be a girl of the same age.

“They talked him into sending some intimate images online,” Ryan said. “The second that happened, the conversation took a turn and they threatened Carson. They wanted gift cards, money and if he didn’t give them that, they were going to share his pictures with everybody on his friends list.

“Of course, he panicked.”

Ryan explained that he and Nicola are “two broken parents” now trying to do everything they can to make sure “this doesn’t happen to another family, to another child, to another person.”

Nicola urged anyone struggling to reach out. “I think 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.”

“There’s always somebody, either a friend, or family, or teacher that will always be there to help you,” Nicola said. “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.”

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