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School districts across the country are increasingly embracing social media, filing lawsuits arguing that Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube helped create the nationwide youth mental health crisis and should be held accountable.
The lawsuit began in January with a lawsuit filed by Seattle Public Schools and has picked up steam in recent weeks as school districts in California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Florida have followed suit. Lawyers involved say many more are planned.
San Mateo County, home to 23 school districts and part of Northern California’s Silicon Valley, filed a 107-page complaint in federal court last week alleging social media companies used advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies to creating addictive platforms that cause harm to teens.
“The results have been disastrous,” the filing said, adding that more children than ever are struggling with their mental health from overuse of the platforms. “There is simply no historical analogue to the crisis the nation’s youth are now facing,” it said.
The lawsuit cites recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing rising rates of depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts among the nation’s high school students. The rise in popularity of social media, she claims, “corresponds precisely” to a decline in adolescent mental health. It cites President Biden’s remarks in his State of the Union address that the tactics employed by social media companies are an “experiment they are running on our children for profit.”
Nancy Magee, superintendent of schools in San Mateo County, said in an interview that rampant use of social media has left its mark on schools, to the point where school administrators have observed a spike in mental health emergencies during the school day. There have been “very serious” cyberbullying incidents involving social media – with content that is “almost impossible” to get the companies to shut down – and school threats that have kept students at home, she said.
Magee also pointed to other damage — for example, vandalism in high school restrooms during the so-called “Devious Lick Challenge.” Students across the country stole soap dispensers, flooded toilets, smashed mirrors — and then showed off their stunts on TikTok.
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“The social media companies create the platforms and the tools, but the impact is being felt by schools and I’d really like to see an understanding of that,” Magee said. “And then that the education community is given the resources, both in people and tools, to adequately support students.”
Social media companies did not directly comment on the lawsuit, but said in written statements that they prioritize the safety of teenagers and described measures to protect young users.
TikTok named age-restricted features with restrictions on direct messages and live streams, and private accounts for younger teens by default. It also pointed out limitations on nightly notifications; parental controls, called Family Pairing, which allow parents to control content, privacy and screen time; and expert resources, including suicide prevention and eating disorder hotlines accessible directly from the app.
YouTube, which is owned by Google, has Family Link, which parents can use to set reminders, limit screen time and block certain types of content on supervised devices, spokesman José Castañeda said. Protections for users under 18 include default uploads to private and feel-good reminders for breaks and bedtime.
Meta, which owns Instagram, said more than 30 tools support teens and families, including age verification technology, notifications for 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 percent of it before it’s reported to us,” said Antigone Davis, Meta’s global head of security .
Snapchat said its platform “curates content from well-known creators and publishers and uses human moderation to review user-generated content before it can reach large audiences.” This “significantly reduces the spread and detection of harmful content,” a spokesperson said, adding that Snapchat is working with mental health organizations to provide in-app tools and resources for users.
The first of the lawsuits, filed Jan. 6 for the Seattle Public Schools, says research shows the social media companies are “using the same neural circuits as gambling and recreational drugs to trick consumers into to use their products as much as possible,” and that social media is so popular that it is used by 90 percent of 13-17 year olds. A study showed that users check Snapchat 30 times a day, it said. Almost 20 percent of teens use YouTube “almost constantly,” it said.
Seattle has seen an increase in the proportion of teens “saying they can’t stop or control their anxiety, feeling so sad and hopeless that they’re stopping doing activities they used to love, contemplating suicide” or made plans to take their own life or attempted suicide, the suit said.
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Outside of Philadelphia, officials in Bucks County on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against the social media companies, laying out a similar case. It’s not because they oppose social media, said commission chairman Bob Harvie — who points out that the county itself used TikTok — but rather that the algorithms that get teens to “keep looking, keep focusing, keep scrolling” are taking a toll on kids. Mental health.
“The way we’re looking at it, it’s not dissimilar to the way cigarette manufacturers used to manipulate nicotine levels to make sure people kept smoking,” Harvie said. “…Our top priority is to change the behavior of these companies.”
School districts generally demand that social media companies’ behavior be declared a public nuisance, that their practices be changed, and that damages be paid to fund prevention, education and treatment for excessive and problematic social media use.
The 109-page lawsuit on behalf of Bucks County highlights deteriorating mental health data and says the problems “have progressed in lockstep with the growth of social media platforms that are deliberately designed to recruit youth for the platforms.” Attract and addictive by amplifying harmful material and dopamine-dosing users hits, thereby increasing youth engagement and ad revenue.”
It later said that social apps “hijack a tween and teen compulsion — to connect — that can be even stronger than hunger or greed.”
In northern New Jersey, the Chathams school district has invested increasing resources over the years to help students struggling with anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, said attorney Michael Innes, whose law firm is representing the district in his pending lawsuit In the middle of February. The company filed a similar lawsuit in early March for another New Jersey school district, Irvington Public Schools.
“We’ve spoken to school districts that have made a choice between spending on mental health versus spending on schooling,” Innes said.
For Richard Weissbourd, a psychologist and lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, the lawsuits may make a lot of sense, but parents, coaches and others involved in teenage life need to be more effective when talking to teens about the benefits and dangers of social media .
One problem, Weissbourd said, is that many parents are busy with their own devices. In recent research, he said, many teens reported that their primary caregiver used a smartphone or computer when they needed help or wanted to be together.
Marisol Garcia, a personal therapist at Northwestern University’s Family Institute, said social media can be a powerful vehicle for connection, but the downsides are significant, too. She wasn’t surprised that schools have started filing lawsuits, saying they want to do what they think is good for their students’ mental and physical health.
The long-term effects of social media use — on attention span, social skills, mental health — are unclear, she said. The lawsuit, she said, “could be a positive thing.”