Schools sue social media companies over youth mental health crisis


School districts across the country are increasingly using social media and are pursuing lawsuits alleging that Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube helped create the country’s growing mental health crisis and should be held accountable for it.

The lawsuit began in January with a lawsuit from Seattle Public Schools and gained momentum in recent weeks as school districts in California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Florida 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 that social media companies used advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning technology to promote addictive drugs. create platforms that cause harm to young people.

“The results are disastrous,” the filing states, saying more children than ever are struggling with their mental health amid overuse of the platforms. “There is simply no historical analogue to the crisis the country’s youth is now facing,” it said.

The suit references recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing rates of depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation are on the rise among the nation’s high school students. The rising popularity of social media, it claims, “tracks right along” with a decline in young people’s mental health. It cites President Biden’s State of the Union comments that social media companies’ tactics are an “experiment they are conducting on our children for profit.”

San Mateo County Superintendent of Schools Nancy Magee said in an interview that rampant use of social media 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 involving social media — with content “almost impossible” for the companies to remove — and school threats that have kept students home, she said.

Magee also pointed to other damage, for example vandalism in high school bathrooms during what was dubbed the “Devious Lick Challenge”. Students across the country stole soap dispensers, flooded toilets, shattered mirrors, then showed off their stunts on TikTok.

The crisis of student mental health is much bigger than we realize

“The social media companies are creating the platforms and the tools, but the impact is being felt by schools, and I would really like to see some insight into that,” said Magee. “And then, that the educational community be provided with the resources in both people and tools to help support students appropriately.”

Social media companies did not directly comment on the lawsuit, but said in written statements that they prioritize teen safety and described measures to protect young users.

TikTok mentioned age-restricted features, with limits on direct messages and live streams, as well as standard private accounts for younger teens. It also pointed out limits 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 helplines, accessible directly 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, spokesman José Castañeda said. Protections for users under 18 include uploads to private and well-being reminders for breaks and bedtime by default.

Instagram owner Meta 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 more than 99 percent before it is reported to us,” said Antigone Davis, global head of security at Meta.

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 a large audience.” Doing so “significantly reduces the spread and discovery of harmful content,” said spokesperson Pete Boogaard, adding that Snapchat is partnering with mental health organizations to provide users with in-app tools and resources.

The first of the lawsuits, filed Jan. 6 for Seattle Public Schools, said research shows the social media companies “use the same neural circuitry as gambling and recreational drugs to get consumers to use their products as much as possible” and that social media is as popular as possible. that it is used by 90 percent of 13 to 17 year olds. A study found that users checked Snapchat 30 times a day, it said. Nearly 20 percent of teens use YouTube “almost constantly,” it said.

Seattle has seen an increase in the proportion of youth “who say they can’t stop or manage their anxiety, who feel so sad and hopeless that they are giving up activities they used to love, who are contemplating suicide,” or making plans to take their lives or attempt suicide, the suit said.

The crisis in American girlhood

Outside of Philadelphia, officials in Bucks County filed suit against the social media companies on Tuesday, filing a similar case. It’s not because they’re against social media, said Commission President Bob Harvie — pointing out that the county itself has used TikTok — but rather that the algorithms that keep teens “keep watching, keep focusing, keep scrolling” are taking a toll on children. mental health.

“The way we look at it, it’s similar to the way cigarette companies manipulated nicotine levels to get people to keep smoking,” Harvie said. “Our number one priority is simply to change the behavior of these companies.”

School districts generally strive to have the behavior of social media companies identified as a nuisance to the public, change their practices, and pay reparations 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, saying the issues are “combined with the growth of social media platforms that are deliberately designed to lure and addict young people to the platforms by posting harmful material.” amplify and dose users with dopamine hits, thereby boosting youth engagement and ad revenue.

It later says that social apps “hijack a teenager’s compulsion — to connect — that can be even more powerful 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 firm is representing the district in the lawsuit filed. in mid February. The company filed a similar action in early March for another New Jersey school district, Irvington Public Schools.

“We’ve talked to school districts that have made a decision between mental health spending and classroom education spending,” Innes said.

Carrie James, a digital life researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said the lawsuits speak to “the seriousness of the problem” schools see and their sense of social media involvement. Still, she said in an email, it’s unclear whether the legal action will result in financial damage to schools.

There’s tremendous debate — and mixed evidence — about the role of social media in adolescent mental health and well-being, James said. Her work with researcher Emily Weinstein showed that teen experiences vary, she said: For some, social media is a net positive, even a lifeline, while for others it crowds out sleep and physical activity or amplifies loneliness and poor body image.

Different interventions are needed to address the complexity, she said, but social media companies must take responsibility for how their products contribute. The question, she said, is, “Will school lawsuits help bring enough pressure?”

Schools sue social media companies over youth mental health crisis

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