What just happened? The negative impact social media can have on young people's mental health is well documented. Now, Seattle's 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 US district court on Friday claims the social media companies are responsible for worsening the mental health of the children that they target. The tech giants are also blamed for rising rates of anxiety, depression, disordered eating, cyberbullying, self-harm, and suicide ideation. It's led to schools hiring additional mental health professionals, developing lesson plans about the effects of social media, and providing additional training to teachers.
The lawsuit alleges that between 2009 and 2019, there was, on average, a 30% increase in the number of students at Seattle public schools who reported feeling "so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that [they] stopped doing some usual activities."
"Defendants' growth is a product of choices they made to design and operate their platforms in ways that exploit the psychology and neurophysiology of their users into spending more and more time on their platforms," the suit states. "[They] 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."
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 suit says the rule does not protect the companies in this case because they are liable for recommending, distributing, and promoting content and marketing their platforms "in a way that causes harm."
"Plaintiff is not alleging Defendants are liable for what third-parties have said on Defendants' platforms but, rather, for Defendants' own conduct," the lawsuit states. "Defendants affirmatively recommend and promote harmful content to youth, such as pro-anorexia and eating disorder content."
Responding to the suit, Google told Axios it has "invested heavily in creating safe experiences for children across our platforms and have introduced strong protections and dedicated features to prioritize their well-being." The company cited its Family Link service, a two-party system where an app installed on a parent's device is used to configure settings and permissions on a child's device.
Snapchat, meanwhile, told Reuters that it is working "closely with many mental health organizations to provide in-app tools and resources for users and that the well-being of its community is its top priority."
The school district is asking the court to order the companies to stop creating a public nuisance. It is also asking for damages, and to pay for the prevention of and treatment for excessive and problematic use of social media.
Facebook was rocked by another scandal in 2021 when whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed documents showing the company had spent years examining the effects Instagram has on younger users' mental health and was aware of the damage it could cause. She also said Facebook was putting its own profits ahead of the safety of users.