Updated Jan 9, 2023 - Technology

Seattle schools sue tech giants over youth mental health crisis

enior students Samantha Ashworth talk to their mothers on their phone as they return to campus for in-person instruction.

Students Samantha Ashworth, left, and Sarah Attia talk to their mothers on their phones at school in Long Beach, Calif., on March 24, 2021. Photo: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Seattle Public Schools is suing social media companies including TikTok and Meta, saying the tech giants' "misconduct has been a substantial factor in causing a youth mental health crisis."

Driving the news: "This mental health crisis is no accident. It is the result of the Defendants’ deliberate choices and affirmative actions to design and market their social media platforms to attract youth," the lawsuit states.

  • "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 Defendants' social media platforms," the complaint, which was filed Friday, says.
  • The lawsuit alleges that the defendants have violated Washington state's public nuisance law.

What they're saying: "We have invested heavily in creating safe experiences for children across our platforms and have introduced strong protections and dedicated features to prioritize their wellbeing," Google spokesperson José Castañeda said in a statement.

  • "For example, through Family Link, we provide parents with the ability to set reminders, limit screen time and block specific types of content on supervised devices," Castañeda said.
  • “While we can’t comment on the specifics of active litigation, nothing is more important to us than the wellbeing of our community," a Snap spokesperson said in a statement.
  • "We will continue working to make sure our platform is safe and to give Snapchatters dealing with mental health issues resources to help them deal with the challenges facing young people today," the Snap spokesperson continued.
  • TikTok won't comment on pending litigation, but a spokesperson shared with Axios some information on how the app "prioritizes the safety and well-being of teens," including age-restricted features and break reminders, among others.

Meanwhile, Antigone Davis, global head of safety at Meta, said in a statement that the firm wanted teens to be safe online.

  • "We've developed more than 30 tools to support teens and families, including supervision tools that let parents limit the amount of time their teens spend on Instagram, and age verification technology that helps teens have age-appropriate experiences," Davis added.
  • "We'll continue to work closely with experts, policymakers and parents on these important issues.”

The big picture: Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen in 2021 testified that the tech giant is aware that some of its platforms are harmful to certain populations, including teenagers, but targets them anyway.

  • The lawsuit said that from 2009 to 2019, there was an average 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."

Go deeper ... 4 takeaways from the Facebook whistleblower hearing

Editor's note: This story has been updated with statements from Google, Snap and Meta.

Go deeper