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Legault calls social media platforms 'virtual pushers' as party mulls age restrictions

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Social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat are nothing less than "virtual pushers," according to Premier François Legault.

"The way social media works is to make readers dependent," Legault said Saturday at the opening of the Coalition avenir Québec (CAQ) general convention in Saint-Hyacinthe.

"It's a bit like they're virtual pushers, like drugs, like other substances."

"It's worrying," he added. "It scares me. It's creating major mental health problems for young people … I'm open to taking major steps."

Around 700 CAQ members gathered in Saint-Hyacinthe to take part in a general convention with the theme "Quebec in change."

At the heart of the debates was the CAQ youth wing's proposal to set the minimum age for accessing social media at 16.

On May 2, Legault ridiculed the idea put forward by Parti québécois (PQ) leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon of banning certain young people from accessing social networks.

On Saturday, Isabelle Lecours, the MNA for Lotbinière-Frontenac, took to the microphone to point out that young people as young as 14 can consult a doctor without parental authorization.

"So why shouldn't 16-year-olds be able to open a Facebook account?" she asked the audience.

The Instagram logo seen on a cell phone in Boston on October 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, Archives)

In the end, the youth wing's proposal was heavily amended: the general council voted for the question of a digital majority "at an age to be determined" to be studied in a "parliamentary commission."

Legault immediately sent a letter to the leaders of the opposition parties proposing the creation of a special cross-party commission to study the impact of screen time and social media on young people.

The special commission could also look into a possible ban on cellphones anywhere in schools, added Education Minister Bernard Drainville during a press scrum.

No deadline has yet been set for this work.

The role of parents

On the other hand, CAQ supporters argued that the State should not take the place of parents. "Are parents today going to let the government decide how to raise a child? It's in the kitchen and in the home that the first education should take place," said Roch Laviolette.

Invited by the CAQ to comment on "the effects of social media," Emmanuelle Parent, director of the Centre for Online Emotional Intelligence, invited parents to look in the mirror.

"In one class, it was super touching, I came out so moved, a youngster asked me: 'Madame, what's your trick to get my parents off screens?'" she recounted.

"The 10- and 11-year-olds said: 'I'm coming to my parent with a concrete activity.' Another said: 'I bring food. If I come with a bowl of food, you have to use your hands, so he drops his screen.'"

"Among teenagers, we'll hear: 'He uses it [the screen] at dinner, I use it at dinner,'" she added.

For her part, guest professor and psychologist Magali Dufour said she hoped social media, which she likened to "a new toy," would eventually "stabilize" and "regulate itself."

"We saw it, for example, in Amsterdam with cannabis … we saw it with poker, too," she said

Artificial intelligence

The CAQ also debated artificial intelligence (AI), which offers "exceptional opportunities," but which "risks ... generating unexpected side effects," read the resolutions booklet.

In particular, it was proposed to "use AI to reduce the time and administrative burden for businesses and citizens in their interactions with the state."

This proposal seemed to worry some CAQ members and was amended to provide for the right of Quebecers to put their questions directly to a government employee.

A general convention is an opportunity for members of a political party to get together to take stock and debate ideas. The last such event held by the CAQ was in May 2023.

The CAQ met in Saint-Hyacinthe at a time when their party was 10 points behind the PQ, with just over two years to go before the next election, according to the latest Léger poll.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on May 25, 2024.

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