Seattle public schools are suing the companies behind popular social media platforms Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube, claiming these companies are largely responsible for a major decline in youths’ mental health.
Seattle School District filed their complaint Friday, and Kent School District joined the lawsuit Monday. Seattle law firm Keller Rohrback is representing the districts.
According to the Seattle School District’s complaint, social media has made it more difficult to educate their students, as youth experiencing anxiety, depression and other mental health issues “perform worse in school, are less likely to attend school, more likely to engage in substance use, and to act out.”
The schools are seeking the legal maximum amount of damages, saying the compensation is necessary to fund resources that will combat the mental health crisis social media has allegedly caused. They also hope these companies will “take responsibility for the harm they are causing students,” Keller Rohrback attorney Dean Kawamoto said in an email to Deseret News.
The complaint points to research revealing social media’s strong role in mental illness and says the national youth mental health crisis is evident in heightened rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation among teenagers. Keller Rohrback cited the U.S. Surgeon General, which recognized the mental health crisis last year, saying 1 in 5 children between ages 13 to 17 now suffer from a mental health disorder.
The plaintiffs say social media companies design their platforms to keep users coming back for more. They say the companies specifically target youth because they know teenagers are key to growth.
“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 complaint states.
By taking advantage of young, vulnerable brains, these companies create positive feedback loops of excessive media consumption for a profit, according to the complaint.
“These social media companies know full well the harm that they are causing to kids. However, this has not caused them to change how they do business,” Kawamoto said. “The Seattle Public School District has decided to take action to protect their students.”
In addition to manipulative business practices, the school districts accused the social media companies of curating content that encourages destructive behavior, such as disordered eating, cyberbullying and self-harm.
Google and Snap, Inc., the companies behind YouTube and Snapchat, responded to the lawsuit in emails to The Associated Press, articulating its efforts to boost mental health on their platforms.
“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, referencing parents’ ability to limit screen time and block certain content on their children’s devices.
Snap, Inc. officials pointed to their in-app efforts to combat mental illness, including their 2020 initiative “Here For You” and content about suicide phone services.
Meta Platforms Inc., which owns Instagram and Facebook, said in an email to Reuters that it has incorporated more than 30 mechanisms to help users with mental health and will continue in their efforts.
ByteDance, Inc., TikTok’s owner, has not responded directly to the lawsuit.