What happened now? The negative impact of social media on the mental health of young people is well documented. Now, the Seattle School District has filed a lawsuit against the companies behind TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat, accusing them of creating a “mental health crisis among America’s youth.”
The 91-page complaint, filed in U.S. District Court on Friday, alleges that social media is responsible for the deteriorating mental health of children they target. The tech giants have also been blamed for rising rates of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, cyberbullying, self-harm and suicidal thoughts. This has led schools to hire additional mental health professionals, develop lesson plans on the impact of social media, and provide additional teacher training.
The lawsuit alleges that between 2009 and 2019, Seattle public schools saw an average 30% increase in the number of students who reported feeling “so sad or hopeless nearly every day for two weeks or more in a row that [they] stopped doing some of the usual things.”
“Defendants’ growth is a result of the choices they have made to design and operate their platforms in a way that harnesses the psychology and neurophysiology of their users to spend more and more time on their platforms,” the lawsuit states. “[They] successfully harnessed the vulnerable mindsets of youth by engaging tens of millions of students across the country in a positive feedback loop about the overuse and abuse of defendant social media platforms.”
Social media companies are protected from liability when it comes to what third parties post on their platforms thanks to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. However, the lawsuit says the rule does not protect companies in this case, as they are responsible for recommending, distributing and promoting content and marketing their platforms “in a manner that causes harm.”
“Plaintiff does not allege that Defendants are responsible for what third parties have said on Defendants’ platforms, but rather for Defendants’ own conduct,” the lawsuit says. “Respondents affirmatively recommend and promote harmful content for young people, such as content that supports anorexia and eating disorders.”
In response to the lawsuit, Google said Axios it has “invested heavily in creating a safe experience for children on our platforms and has implemented robust protection and special features to ensure their well-being is a priority.” The company referred to its Family Link service, a two-way system in which an app installed on a parent’s device is used to configure settings and permissions on a child’s device.
Meanwhile, Snapchat told Reuters that it is “working closely with many mental health organizations to provide users with tools and resources in the app, and that the well-being of its community is its top priority.”
The school district is asking the court to order companies to stop creating a public nuisance. It also seeks damages and payment for the prevention and treatment of excessive and problematic social media use.
Facebook rocked another scandal in 2021 when whistleblower Frances Haugen released documents showing the company had spent years studying Instagram’s impact on the mental health of young users and was aware of the damage it could cause. She also said that Facebook is putting its own profit ahead of user safety.