Announcing the lawsuit on Wednesday, county officials said the social media platforms TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, Youtube and Snapchat are encouraging “juvenile addiction” and fueling a mental health crisis.
Bucks County wants TikTok, Facebook and others to address mental health
Those five companies are named in the lawsuit, which seeks financial compensation for efforts made by the Bucks County Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Programs to help children allegedly affected by the social media applications.
“What the lawsuit addresses is a mental health crisis that is seriously affecting children everywhere, especially in Bucks County,” said Bucks County attorney Joe Khan.
He said Bucks County is the first local government to join the multi-district lawsuit, which was filed in California.
The lawsuit alleges that the platforms are flooding teens and children with as much divisive and harmful content as possible and enslaving them for the sake of profit.
“This has profound and dangerous implications for our youth, our communities and our schools that simply cannot be ignored,” part of the suit reads. It claims that the social media platforms are making regular design tweaks to maximize screen time and promote problematic usage levels.
Khan said a number of provincial mental health services were provided to children affected by social media. Those services were paid for by the county’s taxpayers, and the lawsuit is seeking compensation for them.
County officials have not said how many they are looking for.
The lawsuit says that since 2021, Bucks County has had to hire additional mental health professionals who focus on youth mental health, including 80 school mental health workers.
How are Bucks kids affected by social media?
District Attorney Matt Weintraub said there is a “line out the door” for youth mental health services. Some have suicidal thoughts, anxiety or depression.
“This phenomenon, I think, corresponds to the advent and spread of social media that has targeted our youth,” he said.
Under the Consumer Protection Act, Pennsylvania district attorneys have the right to sue to recover some of the damages caused by businesses, Weintraub explains.
The companies use mechanisms similar to gambling by manipulating users with “intermittent variable rewards,” which deliver addictive shots of dopamine as they search for continuous, algorithmic, personalized content and ads, the county said.
The lawsuit alleges that teens are particularly vulnerable to the “social rewards” of social media because they feel more satisfaction in the adolescent brain.
The lawsuit cites three incidents in Bucks County caused by teens using social media. Those included a teen threatening to “shoot into” a Central Bucks School, two teens shooting beads at a movie theater in Warrington, and two Bucks County school districts reporting vandalism in their bathrooms.
In addition to seeking financial compensation, Khan said the lawsuit demands that the companies stop the practices they believe are causing the problems.
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How have the companies responded?
Reps for TikTok and Snapchat responded, saying they could not comment on pending lawsuits.
However, a Snapchat spokesperson issued the following statement:
“Nothing is more important to us than the well-being of our community. At Snapchat, we curate content from well-known creators and publishers and use human review to review user-generated content before it can reach a large audience, which helps prevent the spread and discovery of harmful content. We also work closely with leading mental health organizations to provide in-app tools for Snapchatters and resources to help support both themselves and their friends. We are constantly evaluating how we can continue to make our platform more secure, including through new educational, features and protections.”
A spokesperson for TikTok said the company is prioritizing the safety and well-being of teens through age-restricting features, screen time limits, parental controls and access to support resources directly in the application.
Meta, which owns both Facebook and Instagram, issued the following statement from Antigone Davis, Global Head of Safety for Meta:
“We want teens to be safe online. We’ve developed more than 30 tools to support teens and families, including supervision tools that help parents limit the amount of time their teens spend on Instagram, and age-verification technology that helps teens have age-appropriate experiences. We automatically set teens’ accounts to private when they join Instagram and send notifications to encourage them to take regular breaks. We don’t allow content that encourages suicide, self-harm or eating disorders, and of the content we remove or take action against, we identify over 99% of it before it is reported to us. We will continue to work closely with experts, policy makers and parents on these important issues.”
Google, which owns YouTube, said:
“We have invested heavily in creating safe experiences for children across all our platforms and have introduced strong protections and special features to put their well-being first. For example, through Family Link, we give parents the ability to set reminders, limit screen time, and block specific types of content on supervised devices.”
This article originally appeared on Bucks County Courier Times: Bucks County is suing Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram and YouTube