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School district sues social media giants for 'creating a youth mental health crisis'

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(SEATTLE) — Seattle Public Schools, the largest school district in the state of Washington, filed a lawsuit Friday against multiple social media giants, in an effort to hold the companies “accountable for the harm they have wreaked on the social, emotional, and mental health of its students,” the district claimed.

“It has become increasingly clear that many children are burdened by mental health challenges. Our students — and young people everywhere — face unprecedented, learning and life struggles that are amplified by the negative impacts of increased screen time, unfiltered content, and potentially addictive properties of social media,” Seattle Public Schools superintendent Brent Jones said in a statement. “We are confident and hopeful that this lawsuit is the first step toward reversing this trend for our students, children throughout Washington state, and the entire country.”

The lawsuit accuses Meta, the parent company of Instagram and Facebook; Snap Inc., which runs Snapchat; ByteDance, the owner of TikTok; and Alphabet, the parent company of Google, which owns YouTube, of designing and operating their respective platforms “in ways that exploit the psychology and neurophysiology of their users into spending more and more time on their platforms.” The lawsuit claims those “techniques are both particularly effective and harmful to the youth audience Defendants have intentionally cultivated, creating a mental health crisis among America’s youth.”

“Defendants have done so for profit. Their business models are based on advertisements. The more time users spend on their platforms, the more ads Defendants can sell,” the lawsuit claims.

“…Youths are particularly susceptible to Defendants’ manipulative conduct because their brains are not fully developed, and they consequently lack the same emotional maturity, impulse control, and psychological resiliency as other more mature users,” the lawsuit continues. “Defendants have successfully exploited the vulnerable brains of youth, hooking tens of millions of students across the country into positive feedback loops of excessive use and abuse of Defendants’ social media platforms. Worse, the content Defendants curate and direct to youth is too often harmful and exploitive … Defendants’ misconduct has been a substantial factor in causing a youth mental health crisis, which has been marked by higher and higher proportions of youth struggling with anxiety, depression, thoughts of self-harm, and suicidal ideation.”

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According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, COVID-19 “added to pre-existing challenges that youth faced,” particularly those in marginalized communities. In December 2021, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory highlighting a crisis in youth mental health, and said the need to address the issue was “critical.” The advisory noted that technology can have many benefits for youth, but can also expose kids to unhealthy content. It also urged stakeholders throughout society to take action to address youth mental health challenges.

“Right now, nearly half of high school students in America say that they feel persistently sad or hopeless and it takes 11 years on average from when a child has symptoms to when they can get help,” Murthy said on ABC News’ GMA3 last September. “This is not acceptable. We have to change that.”

A study published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association examining 169 teenagers also suggested a potential link between brain changes in young teens and frequent checking of social media apps and sites, possibly leading to hypersensitivity and impulse control changes, although researchers indicated more study was needed to further understand the interaction between social media and youth brain development.

“Employees and patrons, including students, of Seattle Public Schools have a right to be free from conduct that endangers their health and safety,” the school district’s lawsuit claims. “Yet Defendants have engaged in conduct which endangers or injures the health and safety of the employees and students of Seattle Public Schools by designing, marketing, and operating their respective social media platforms for use by students in Seattle Public Schools and in a manner that substantially interferes with the functions and operations of Seattle Public Schools and impacts the public health, safety, and welfare of the Seattle Public Schools community.”

The district claims in the lawsuit that, as a result of social media usage issues, it has been forced to “take steps to mitigate the harm and disruption caused by Defendants’ conduct,” including “hiring additional personnel to address mental, emotional, and social health issues,” “increasing training for teachers and staff to identify students exhibiting symptoms affecting their mental, emotional, and social health,” “educating students about the dangers of using Defendants’ platforms,” and “investigating and responding to threats made against Plaintiff’s schools and students over social media,” among other things.

The lawsuit seeks compensatory monetary damages and other civil penalties.

In statements to ABC’s Good Morning America, the social media companies pushed back on the lawsuit.

“We want teens to be safe online. We’ve developed more than 30 tools to support teens and families, including supervision tools that let parents limit the amount of time their teens spend on Instagram, and age verification technology that helps teens have age-appropriate experiences,” Antigone Davis, global head of safety at Meta, said in a statement. “We automatically set teens’ accounts to private when they join Instagram, and we send notifications encouraging them to take regular breaks. 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. We’ll continue to work closely with experts, policymakers and parents on these important issues.”

YouTube’s parent company Google also emphasized what it says it has done to protect minors who use the video platform.

“We have invested heavily in creating safe experiences for children across our platforms and have introduced strong protections and dedicated features to prioritize their well being,” Google spokesperson José Castañeda said in a statement. “For example, through Family Link, we provide parents with the ability to set reminders, limit screen time and block specific types of content on supervised devices.”

In a separate statement, Snap, Inc. said that while the company “can’t comment on the specifics of active litigation, nothing is more important to us than the wellbeing of our community.”

“Snapchat was designed to help people communicate with their real friends, without some of the public pressure and social comparison features of traditional social media platforms, and intentionally makes it hard for strangers to contact young people,” a company spokesperson told GMA. “We also work closely with many mental health organizations to provide in-app tools and resources for Snapchatters as part of our ongoing work to keep our community safe. We will continue working to make sure our platform is safe and to give Snapchatters dealing with mental health issues resources to help them deal with the challenges facing young people today.”

TikTok and its parent company ByteDance declined to comment on ongoing litigation but emphasized its efforts to prioritize the safety and well-being of its users.

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