School districts sue social media companies for toll on student mental health
March 19, 2023 Updated Sun., March 19, 2023 at 8:57 p.m.
School districts across the country are increasingly taking on social media, filing lawsuits that argue Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube have helped create the nation’s surging youth mental health crisis and should be held accountable.
The legal action started in January, with a suit by Seattle Public Schools, and picked up momentum in recent weeks as school districts in California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Florida have followed. Lawyers involved say many more are planned.
San Mateo County, home to 23 school districts and part of the Silicon Valley in northern California, filed a 107-page complaint in federal court last week, alleging that social media companies used advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning technology to create addictive platforms that cause young people harm.
“The results have been disastrous,” the filing asserts, saying more children than ever struggle with their mental health amid excessive use of the platforms. “There is simply no historic analog to the crisis the nation’s youth are now facing,” it said.
The suit points to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing climbing rates of depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts among the nation’s high school students. The increasing popularity of social media, it contends, “tracks precisely” with a youth mental health decline. It quotes President Biden’s remarks in his State of the Union address that tactics used by social media companies are an “experiment they are running on our children for profit.”
San Mateo County Superintendent of Schools Nancy Magee said in an interview that rampant social media use has left a mark on schools, to the point where administrators have observed a spike in mental health emergencies during the school day. There have been “very serious” cyberbullying incidents related to social media – with content “nearly impossible” to get the companies to take down – and school threats that have kept students at home, she said.
Magee also pointed to other harms – for example, vandalism in high school bathrooms during what was called the “Devious Lick Challenge.” Students across the country stole soap dispensers, flooded toilets, shattered mirrors – then showed off their stunts on TikTok.
“The social media companies create the platforms and the tools but the impacts are felt by schools, and I would really like to see an understanding of that,” Magee said. “And then that the education community receives the resources in both people and tools to help support students adequately.”
Social media companies did not directly comment on the litigation but in written statements said they prioritize teen safety and described measures to protect young users.
TikTok cited age-restricted features, with limits on direct messaging and livestreams, as well as private accounts by default for younger teens. It also pointed to limits on nighttime notifications; parental controls, called Family Pairing, that allow parents to control content, privacy and screen time; and expert resources, including suicide prevention and eating disorder helplines, directly reachable from the app.
YouTube, which is owned by Google, has Family Link, which allows parents to set reminders, limit screen time and block certain types of content on supervised devices, said spokesperson José Castañeda. Protections for users under 18 include defaulting uploads to private and well-being reminders for breaks and bedtime.
Meta, which owns Instagram, said more than 30 tools support teens and families, including age-verification technology, notifications to take regular breaks and features that allow parents to limit time on Instagram. “We don’t allow content that promotes suicide, self-harm or eating disorders, and of the content we remove or take action on, we identify over 99% of it before it’s reported to us,” said Antigone Davis, Global Head of Safety of Meta.
Snapchat said its platform “curates content from known creators and publishers and uses human moderation to review user generated content before it can reach a large audience.” Doing so “greatly reduces the spread and discovery of harmful content,” a spokesperson said, adding that Snapchat works with mental health organizations to provide in-app tools and resources for users.
The first of the lawsuits, filed Jan. 6 for Seattle Public Schools, said research shows that the social media companies “exploit the same neural circuitry as gambling and recreational drugs to keep consumers using their products as much as possible” and that social media is so popular it is used by 90% of those ages 13 to 17. One study showed users check Snapchat 30 times a day, it said. Nearly 20% of teens use YouTube “almost constantly,” it said.
Seattle has seen a surge in the share of youth “who say they cannot stop or control their anxiety, who feel so sad and hopeless they stop doing the activities they used to love, who are considering suicide,” or made plans to take their lives or attempted suicide, the suit said.
Outside Philadelphia, officials in Bucks County filed suit Tuesday against the social media companies, laying out a similar case. It’s not because they are against social media, said Commission Chair Bob Harvie – who points out the county itself has used TikTok – but rather that the algorithms that get teens to “keep looking, keep focusing, keep scrolling” take a toll on kids’ mental health.
“The way we look at it, it’s not unlike the way cigarette companies used to manipulate nicotine levels to make sure that people kept smoking,” Harvie said.“… Our number one priority is just to get the behavior of these companies to change.”
School districts are generally seeking that the conduct of social media companies be declared a public nuisance, that their practices change and that damages be paid to fund prevention, education and treatment for excessive and problematic use of social media.
The 109-page lawsuit on behalf of Bucks County highlights worsening mental health data, saying the problems have “advanced in lockstep with the growth of social media platforms deliberately designed to attract and addict youth to the platforms by amplifying harmful material, dosing users with dopamine hits, and thereby driving youth engagement and advertising revenue.”
Later, it says social apps “hijack a tween and teen compulsion – to connect – that can be even more powerful than hunger or greed.”
In northern New Jersey, the School District of the Chathams has invested increasing resources over the years to help students struggling with anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, said attorney Michael Innes, whose firm is representing the district in its litigation filed in mid February. The firm filed a similar action for another New Jersey school district, Irvington Public Schools, in early March.
“We’ve spoken to school districts that have made a decision between spending on mental health and spending on classroom education,” Innes said.
For Richard Weissbourd, a psychologist and senior lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, the lawsuits may make a lot of sense but parents, coaches and others involved in teens’ lives need to become more effective in talking to adolescents about the benefits and hazards of social media.
One problem, Weissbourd said, is that many parents are preoccupied with their own devices. In recent research, he said, many teens reported that their primary caregiver was using a smartphone or computer at times when they wanted help or to be together.
Marisol Garcia, a staff therapist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, said social media can be a powerful means of connection but the downsides are significant too. She was not surprised schools have begun filing lawsuits, saying they want to do what they think is good for their students’ mental and physical health.
The long-term ramifications of social media use – on attention span, social skills, mental health – are unclear, she said. The legal action, she said, “could be a positive thing.”
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