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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Public Schools joins lawsuit against Facebook, TikTok and other social media companies

In this photo illustration, a Facebook app logo is displayed on a smartphone on March 25, 2020, in Arlington, Va.  (OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP)
By Elena Perry and Sophia McFarland The Spokesman-Review

The Spokane Public Schools Board voted Wednesday to join Seattle Public Schools in a lawsuit against several social media companies, alleging they intentionally market to youths, worsening their mental health.

The Seattle school district filed the suit in January, and since then, nearly 100 districts across the nation have followed Seattle’s lead. The tech giants behind TikTok, YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook should be “held accountable” for their alleged role in the mental health crisis among youths, the suit claims.

The 90-page complaint alleges the social media companies have contributed to the increase in depression, anxiety, eating disorders, bullying and other mental health concerns among youths. These companies have intentionally targeted marketing toward this demographic, the complaint alleges, exploiting their developing brains and fueling addiction-like dependence to social media platforms.

“Defendants have continued to create more sophisticated versions of their platforms with features designed to keep users engaged and maximize the amount of time they spend using social media,” the lawsuit said.

The suit also said the companies’ “exploitive and manipulative platforms” lead young people to spend excess time on them.

The School Board voted 3-0 to join in the lawsuit. Board President Michael Wiser and board members Melissa Bedford and Riley Smith voted to join the suit. Board members Nikki Lockwood and Jenny Slagle were not in attendance when the vote was made.

“These companies are using strategies that align directly with things like gambling, because of the tactics that they use to make it addictive,” Bedford said.

Regardless of outcome, Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Adam Swinyard said the lawsuit will spread awareness about the dangers of excessive social media use.

“Social media is like giving kids poison if it’s unsupervised and unfettered,” he said. “Whether it’s bullying or threats or intimidation or fentanyl use or sex trafficking, suicidal ideation, our kids are being exposed to the normalization of some pretty toxic things through the frequency and volume of the content they’re seeing on social media.”

The districts are suing for an unspecified amount. Wiser said the goal is to use money from this lawsuit to fund mental health awareness and outreach, though the board hasn’t discussed specifics.

This isn’t the Spokane school district’s first foray into joint lawsuits. Earlier this year, the district received about $1 million in a settlement with vaping company Juul Labs, alleging they intentionally marketed to minors. The district joined a nationwide suit and used a portion of the settlement to pay for vape-detecting technology in school bathrooms.

Wiser said the social media lawsuit could urge tech companies to make changes to their platforms, to make parental and school intervention on social media use easier to enforce.

“I personally have hope that they would commit to take actions that reduce the ability for, you know, an 8-year-old to use it for two hours in a row,” he said.

The firm representing the districts, Keller Rohrback Law Offices, is working on a contingency basis, meaning they’ll be paid via any awards, not out of districts’ budgets.

Tech companies, in response to the lawsuit, said they have systems in place to protect youths on their platforms.

“We want teens to be safe online… We automatically set teens’ accounts to private when they join Instagram, and we send notifications encouraging them to take regular breaks. We don’t allow content that promotes suicide, self-harm or eating disorders,” an unidentified Global Head of Safety at Meta, the company that owns Facebook and Instagram, told King 5 news.

Federal law says social media companies can’t be held accountable for the content third-party users post on their platforms, though the districts said they aren’t making that accusation.

“Plaintiff is not alleging Defendants are liable for what third-parties have said on Defendants’ platforms but, rather, for Defendants’ own conduct,” the lawsuit said. “Defendants affirmatively recommend and promote harmful content to youth, such as pro-anorexia and eating disorder content.”

Spokane teenagers are not immune to the effects of social media.

Grace Warne, a senior at Gonzaga Prep, downloaded Instagram when she was 12. She said that although she never intended to use the app as anything more than a creative outlet, it catalyzed into an unhealthy obsession.

“I let Instagram affect my mental health because I would always see pictures of models and they all kind of looked the same – I just thought something was wrong with me,” Warne said. “When you see a picture of someone that gets them more praise, you automatically think that there is something wrong with you because you don’t get as much praise.”

Helena McCollum, a senior at Lewis and Clark High School, shared similar sentiments.

“Not only is social media harmful to students mental health-wise, but as a female, beauty standards have been extensively damaged because of social media,” she said.

Jack Sodorff, a senior at Gonzaga Prep, said that social media use has “rewired” his brain to need instant gratification.

“I remember watching TikTok and scrolling down the app for hours,” Sodorff said. “This was awful for me, because most of the time I couldn’t remember what I saw a minute ago.”

Shadle Park High School senior Sadie Haney said that while social media has made her feel very self-conscious and aware of her appearance, it gave her freedom in connecting with people and having an outlet to be herself.

“To a certain extent, I feel like they should have that freedom,” she said. “But (only) once their minds are grown enough, so they don’t get swallowed by the black hole that is the Internet.”