School systems are suing social media companies for unprecedented impact on student mental health


School districts across the country are increasingly using social media, filing lawsuits that argue Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube helped create the nation’s growing youth mental health crisis and should be held to account. responsible.

The lawsuit began in January, with a lawsuit from Seattle Public Schools, and has gained momentum 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 Silicon Valley in northern California, filed a 107-page lawsuit in federal court last week alleging social media companies were using technology advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning to create addictive platforms that cause harm to young people.

“The results have been dire,” the filing claims, saying more children than ever are struggling with mental health issues amid excessive platform use. “There is simply no historical analog to the crisis the country’s youth are currently facing,” he said.

The lawsuit points to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing increasing rates of depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts among high school students nationwide. The growing popularity of social media, he argues, “precisely tracks” the decline in young people’s mental health. It cites President Biden’s remarks in his State of the Union address that the tactics used by social media companies are an “experiment they are conducting on our children for profit.”

San Mateo County Schools Superintendent Nancy Magee said in an interview that the widespread use of social media has left an imprint on schools, to the point that administrators have observed an increase in mental health emergencies during the school day. There have been “very serious” incidents of cyberbullying linked to social media – with content “nearly impossible” for companies to remove – and school threats that have kept students at home, she said. .

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

The student mental health crisis is much bigger than you think

“Social media companies create the platforms and tools, but the impacts are felt by schools, and I would really like to see an understanding of that,” Magee said. “And then that the educational community receive the resources in people and tools to help support students adequately.”

The social media companies did not directly comment on the dispute, but in written statements they said they prioritize teen safety and outline measures to protect young users.

TikTok cited age-restricted features, with limits on direct messaging and live streams, as well as default private accounts for younger teens. He also pointed out the limitations of 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, directly accessible from the app.

You Tube, 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, spokesperson José Castañeda said. Protections for users under 18 include default uploads to private and feel-good reminders for breaks and bedtime.

Meta, owner of Instagram, 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 encourages suicide, self-harm, or eating disorders, and of the content we remove or take action on, we identify more than 99% of it before it gets to us. reported,” 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 large audiences.” This “significantly reduces the spread and discovery of harmful content,” a spokesperson said, adding that Snapchat is working with mental health organizations to provide integrated tools and resources to users.

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

Seattle has seen an increase in the proportion of young people “who say they can’t stop or control their anxiety, who feel so sad and hopeless they stop doing activities they used to enjoy, who consider suicide “, or who have planned or attempted suicide, according to the lawsuit.

America’s youth crisis

Outside of Philadelphia, Bucks County officials filed suit against social media companies on Tuesday, exposing a similar case. It’s not because they’re against social media, said Commission Chairman Bob Harvie — who points out that the county itself has used TikTok — but rather the algorithms that urge teens to “keep watching, concentrating, scrolling” take their toll on children. Mental Health.

“From our perspective, it’s no different from how cigarette manufacturers manipulated nicotine levels to make sure people kept smoking,” Harvie said. “…our number one priority is simply to change the behavior of these companies.”

School districts generally seek that the conduct of social media companies be declared a public nuisance, that their practices be changed, and that damages be awarded to fund the prevention, education, and treatment of excessive and problematic media use. social.

The 109-page lawsuit on behalf of Bucks County highlights worsening mental health data, saying the issues have “progressed alongside the growth of social media platforms deliberately designed to lure and addict young people to platforms by amplifying harmful material, dosing users with dopamine hits, and thereby boosting youth engagement and ad revenue.

Later, he says that social apps “hijack a tween and teen 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 represents the district in its litigation filed in mid February. The company filed a similar lawsuit for another New Jersey school district, Irvington Public Schools, in early March.

“We spoke to school districts who have made a decision between spending on mental health and spending on classroom education,” Innes said.

For Richard Weissbourd, a psychologist and lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, lawsuits can make a lot of sense, but parents, coaches and others involved in teens’ lives need to become more effective at talking to teens. advantages and dangers of social networks.

One problem, Weissbourd said, is that many parents are preoccupied with their own devices. In recent research, he said, many teens said their primary caregiver used a smartphone or computer at times when they wanted help or be together.

Marisol Garcia, staff therapist at Northwestern University’s Family Institute, said social media can be a powerful way to connect, but the downsides are also significant. She was not surprised that schools have started to file lawsuits, saying they want to do what they think is good for the mental and physical health of their students.

The long-term ramifications of social media use — on attention span, social skills, mental health — are unclear, she said. Legal action, she said, “could be a positive thing.”

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