Facebook, YouTube, TikTok among tech giants sued by Seattle schools for allegedly contributing to youth mental health crisis

Washington state’s largest school district is suing several major social media companies for creating apps it says exploit children and contribute to a “youth mental health crisis.” Seattle Public Schools filed a lawsuit against Facebook, Instagram and their parent company Meta as well as Snapchat, TikTok, YouTube and others for their roles in the allegations.

The lawsuit, filed in the US District Court for the Western District of Washington on Friday, alleges that the rapid growth platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok have seen are the result of designs and operations that “exploit the psychology and neurophysiology of their users.”

“The defendants have successfully exploited the vulnerable minds of their youth, engaging tens of millions of students across the country in positive feedback loops with the excessive use and abuse of the defendants’ social media platforms,” ​​the complaint states, adding that their “misconduct has been a significant factor causing a mental health crisis for youth.”

In statements to CBS News, the companies defended their practices, saying the teenagers’ safety and well-being was important.

According to the complaint, the school district claims it has seen a 30% increase from 2009 to 2019 in students who said they feel “so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that [they] stopped doing some normal activities.” During the same period, there was also a nationwide increase in students who experienced persistent feelings of sadness and who seriously considered, planned and attempted suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

These problems have only increased since the outbreak of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, with the US Surgeon General reporting last year that depressive and anxiety symptoms have doubled among youth worldwide since the pandemic began.

And Social Media just added to the problem.

A 2022 study by the Pew Research Center found that 97% of teens surveyed use the internet daily, and 35% said they are on at least one social media platform — YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram or Facebook — “almost constantly.” But its widespread use has been linked to mental health problems, with a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2020 finding that girls who use more than two hours of social media one day may experience higher rates of depression and suicidal thoughts.

“This mental health crisis is no accident,” the Seattle district’s lawsuit against the companies says. “It is the result of the defendants’ conscious choices and affirmative actions to design and market their social media platforms to attract youth.”

The lawsuit claims this was made possible by companies creating designs that “promote excessive and problematic use” and manipulate the “biochemical response” within the users’ psychology. This claim was at least somewhat supported by one internal document from Meta published last year revealing that the tech giant knew photo and video sharing app Instagram was making 1 in 3 teenage girls feel bad about their bodies, while driving them to dangerous content such as eating disorders.

In December, more than 1,200 families across the United States sued Meta as well as TikTok, Snapchat, YouTube and Roblox for allegedly knowing they were negatively impacting children.

In a statement posted on its website Saturday, Seattle Public Schools said students have been “significantly impacted” by the widespread mental health issues seen among children and teenagers. The Seattle school district is the largest in the state, serving more than 55,000 students, and the district’s superintendent, Brent Jones, said he hopes the lawsuit will be the “first step toward reversing this trend.”

“It has become increasingly clear that many children are burdened by mental health challenges,” Jones said. “Our students – and young people everywhere – face unprecedented learning and life struggles that are exacerbated by the negative effects of increased screen time, unfiltered content and the potentially addictive properties of social media.”

Seattle Public Schools says the impact that social media platforms have on children, namely anxiety and depression, makes children less likely to attend school, more likely to use drugs and to “act out.” The district said it has mental health services in place to help youth, but believes schools and taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for a mental health crisis it says social media companies have created.

“Our first and foremost priority is the health and well-being of our students. Obviously, this includes the social and emotional harm they are suffering due to the negative effects of social media,” school board President Brandon Hersey said in a statement. “By targeting the social media companies, we are sending a clear message that it is time for them to prioritize the health of children over the revenue they make from advertising.”

The lawsuit says the companies’ actions constitute a “public nuisance” under state law and asks that they be held liable “for the distribution of material they know or should know is harmful or illegal” through a jury trial. They are also seeking financial compensation to “finance preventive training and treatment for excessive and problematic use of social media”.

In a statement to CBS News, Meta’s global security chief Antigone Davis said “we want teenagers to be safe online.”

“We’ve developed more than 30 tools to support teens and families, including moderation tools that let parents limit the time teens spend on Instagram, and age verification technology that helps teens have age-appropriate experiences,” Davis said. “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 any content we remove or take action on , we identify over 99% of it before it is reported to us. We will continue to work closely with experts, policy makers and parents on these important issues.”

A spokesperson for Snapchat told CBS News that the company “cannot comment on the specifics of active litigation” but that “nothing is more important to us than the well-being of our community.”

“Snapchat was designed to help people communicate with their real friends, without any of the public pressure and social comparison features of traditional social media platforms, and intentionally makes it difficult for strangers to contact young people,” the company said. “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 to work to ensure our platform is safe and to provide Snapchatters dealing with mental health issues with health resources to help them deal with the challenges facing young people today.”

A TikTok spokesperson also told CBS News that the company cannot comment on litigation, but said it “prioritises the safety and well-being of teenagers.”

CBS News has also reached out to ByteDance and Google for comment.

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