Seattle’s Public Schools District has filed a lawsuit against multiple major social media companies in the United States, accusing them of harming young people’s mental health across the country.
Bringing mental health issues to the courtroom
The lawsuit, filed on Friday with a US district court, accuses the social media companies behind TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube of creating what it describes in the court documents as a ‘mental health crisis’ among young people in America today.
In the 91-page court document launching the lawsuit, it is claimed that the social media platforms’ growth –
“…is a product of choices they make 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. These techniques are both particularly effective and harmful to the youth audience.”
The document goes on to claim that the 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 the Defendants’ social media platform. The document cites harmful content, including extreme diet plans and encouragements of self-harm, amongst other things.
The lawsuit went on to attribute the companies’ alleged misconduct to the rising rates of anxiety, depression, thoughts of self-harm, and suicide ideation experienced among young people.
Mental health issues caused by social media are on the rise
According to the lawsuit, between 2009 to 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.
As students experience various mental health issues, including anxiety and depression, their performance in schools drops, the lawsuit said, making them less likely to attend school and more likely to engage in substance use and to ‘act out,’ in turn hindering Seattle public schools’ ability to fulfill its educational mission.
What do the platforms say?
In a statement, Google spokesperson José Castañeda, citing Family Link as an example, a parental control feature that allows parents to set screen time and restrict content, among other abilities. said in a statement,
“Google has invested heavily in creating safe experiences for children across our platforms and has introduced strong protections and dedicated features to prioritize their well-being.”
Similarly, Snapchat 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.
In October 2021, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pushed back against lawmakers’ allegations claiming Facebook was making profits at the expense of young people’s mental health. Posting on his own Facebook page, Zuckerberg said,
“The argument that we deliberately push content that makes people angry for profit is deeply illogical. We make money from ads, and advertisers consistently tell us they don’t want their ads next to harmful or angry content. And I don’t know any tech company that sets out to build products that make people angry or depressed.”
Seeking damages for public nuisance
According to the lawsuit, the Seattle schools district is seeking damages due to the public nuisance and has asked the court to order the companies to stop creating. The district is also seeking money to pay for prevention education and treatment for excessive and problematic use of social media.
What could the consequences be?
The lawsuit will be seen by many as little more than a show trial – a shallow attempt to bring social media companies to account, with the burden of proof being far too high for the Seattle schools to come anywhere near close enough to secure success at trial.
However, it has at least stuck its head over the parapet to bring to the attention of the social media giants the alleged harmful effects that social media can have on young people.
In an unrelenting world where the rampaging advance of social media seems to face few obstacles, at least one organization is willing to take them to task and open their eyes to the harsh reality of the overall situation.
What do you think of this legal action? To what extent do you believe social media is harmful to young people’s mental health? Let us know in the comments.