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Public schools sue Social Media Giants for Youth Mental Health Crisis

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Lawsuits are being filed that accuse companies behind Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat,  TikTok and YouTube of mental health harm.

Schools in Calif., N.J., Utah and Wash. states have filed suits against these increasingly infamous companies for harming the mental health of their students.

The Utah suit claims: “Defendants have successfully exploited the vulnerable brains of minors, causing millions of students across the United States, including in plaintiffs’ district, to become addicted to and excessively using defendants’ social media platforms. Furthermore, the content defendants direct to minors is many times harmful and exploitive (e.g., instigating vandalism, eating disorders, or encouraging self-harm).”

The Seattle, Wash. public schools district filed the first such lawsuit early this year against several major social media companies. The suit accuses them of harming the mental health of young people.

Filed in US district court, the Seattle lawsuit accuses the social media companies behind Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube of creating a mental health crisis in America’s young students. It reads in part:

“Defendants’ growth is a product of choices they made to design and operate their platforms in ways that exploit the psychology and neurophysiology of their users into spending more and more time on their platforms. These techniques are particularly effective and harmful to the youth audience.

“Defendants have successfully exploited the vulnerable brains of youth, hooking tens of millions of students across the country into positive feedback loops of excessive use and abuse of defendants’ social media platforms.”

The complaint cites allegedly harmful content that included extreme diet plans and self-harm encouragement.

Increased Levels of Anxiety, Depression, Self Harm, Suicide ideation

The lawsuit also attributes these companies’ (alleged) misconduct to young people’s increases in their rates of anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide ideation.

The Seattle lawsuit claims that 2009 to 2019 saw an average 30% increase in the number of students at the city’s public schools who reported feeling so sad or hopeless nearly every day for two or more subsequent weeks that they ceased performing some usual activities.

In addition, the suit says that when students experience various mental health issues including anxiety and depression, their school performance drops. That makes them not only less likely to attend, but also more likely to engage in substance abuse and to “act out,” which then hinders the schools’ ability to fulfill its educational mission.

On the defendant’s side, the Communications Decency Act’s section 230 seems to indicate that federal law helps provide immunity for online platforms with respect to third-party users and what they choose to post as content.

The lawsuit claims, however, that the provision does not protect the social media companies. The suit says they are liable for recommending, distributing, promoting and marketing content on their social media platforms in a way which causes harm.

Some Defendants Respond

Google spokesperson José Castañeda told Axios that, “[Google has] invested heavily in creating safe experiences for children across our platforms and have introduced strong protections and dedicated features to prioritize their well being.”

Mr. Castañeda cited an example of his company’s due diligence, noting that Family Link is a parental control feature which lets parents set screen time and restrict content.

Snapchat told Reuters it is working “closely with many mental health organizations to provide in-app tools and resources for users and that the well-being of its community is its top priority.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg denied allegations from lawmakers in October 2021 that Facebook was profiting at the expense of young people’s mental health.

“The argument that we deliberately push content that makes people angry for profit is deeply illogical,” said Zuckerberg about Facebook (now owned by Meta).

[The plaintiffs might call that a straw man argument from Mr. Z, but we’ll let the courts decide that.]

“We make money from ads, and advertisers consistently tell us they don’t want their ads next to harmful or angry content. And I don’t know any tech company that sets out to build products that make people angry or depressed.”

The Seattle schools district seeks damages caused by the “public nuisance” these companies create. It has asked the court to order the companies to stop creating such content.

The school district of Seattle and those of Utah, Calif. and N.J. also seek funds to pay for prevention education and treatment for their students’ excessive and problematic use of social media.


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by Matthews & Associates

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