Skip to content

B.C. to limit cellphone use in schools, take action against extortion

Eby says move is in response to promise to family of boy, 12, who was victim of online sextortion
Nicole Smith and Ryan Cleland, the parents of 12-year-old Carson Cleland who died of suicide after falling victim to online sextortion in October 2023, joined Premier David Eby Friday in Surrey, where he announced a series measures promising to stop the harmful effects of digital technology. (Screencap)

The parents of a 12-year-old boy who died of suicide after falling victim to online sextortion fought back tears telling their story as Premier David Eby announced measures to fight the effects of cellphones and social media.

Carson Cleland of Prince George died by suicide in October 2023 after having shared intimate images online with somebody who had pretended to be a young girl around his age. Carson then received extortion threats.

His parents, Ryan Cleland and Nicola Smith, had publicly come forward after Carson’s death to raise public awareness and both spoke again Friday (Jan. 26), urging others to speak about the issue and seek help.

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

“If we can offer any advice on the matter, please remember, you are never alone,” Nicola said, fighting back tears. “There is always someone or somebody out there, either a friend, family or teacher, that will always be there to help you. There are many resources out there for teenagers and young adults to reach out and get supports. If you are or know anyone, who is dealing with this, getting harassed or being asked for personal information, personal pictures, please do not talk to that person. They are not your friends. Tell a parent, tell a friend.”

RELATED: Frank talks urged in wake of sextortion death of Prince George 12-year-old

Eby, who held up a picture of Carson as his parents spoke, had proceeded their personal appeals with announcing a series of measures aimed at curtailing digital technology inside and outside the classroom.

He said the province will ask school districts across the province to develop policies restricting cellphone use during instructional time.

“It (cellphone use) is hard on the classroom environment,” he said. “In addition to the unregulated content that kids can have access to at school, it disrupts the flow of the class-room, it interrupts the kids while they are learning, making it difficult for them to where they started.”

While Eby acknowledged that parents would have questions about the proposed ban, the research clearly shows the benefits of ban.

Ultimately though, it will be up to teachers and school districts to work out the details. “Our goal is that it works, that it actually results in the outcome that I think we all want without dictating a particular method.”

Eby also announced that the province would be suing social media companies for the negative health effects caused by what he called addictive and toxic algorithms in drawing a comparison with past efforts in British Columbia under the NDP to sue tobacco and pharmaceutical companies producing opioids.

He also pointed to current legal actions in the United States as precedent, adding that British Columbia is not the only jurisdiction going after these companies.

Companies behind various social media apps are not interested in protecting children, Eby said.

“Their interest is in keeping kids online, engaged in their apps with ever more extreme content, so that they can serve them ads, so that they can make money for their shareholders,” Eby said.

Eby said legislation scheduled to be tabled in the spring session of the provincial legislature won’t ban social media apps per se, but rather help recover the costs connected with images and other “more and more extreme content” circulating through social media.

RELATED: B.C. tables bill against non-consensual sharing of intimate images

Eby said research has linked this content to increasing levels of anorexia among both girls and boys, increasing anxiety and depression among young people as well addictive and obsessive behaviour among at a particularly vulnerable age, threatening the health and safety of children.

The province is also launching services starting Monday to help remove images from the internet and pursue predators, building on legislation passed in 2023. The provincial government will also supply educational tools to families and children on internet safety.

Eby stressed that these measures do not reflect what he called an “anxiety about technology.” Instead, they respond to the inability of families to deal with these issues on their own to help their children succeed in school.

“I don’t think there is anything more important we can do as a government than to keep our kids safe,” he said. “So today, I want to make good on a commitment that I had made to Carson’s family when we made first contact, which is that Carson’s death would not be in vain, that our government would step up support the heroic work done by the Clelands to raise awareness of this issue.”

Attorney General Niki Sharma and Education Minister Rachna Singh, along with a host of Surrey-area MLA, joined Eby in making the announcements.

BC Greens Leader Sonia Furstenau praised Friday’s announcement in a release.

“We applaud the commitment to ensure that our children are safe online, including beefing up actions to remove explicit images from the internet and holding social media companies responsible for the harms that they cause,” she said.

“We will closely watch the government’s plan for this, and the results they achieve. We welcome the intention to provide treatment and counselling programs for children affected by online harms - and encourage the BC NDP to invest in mental health supports for all students in B.C.”

BC United, meanwhile, pointed out that it had first called for a cell phone ban 142 days ago.

Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
Read more