Mar 19, 2023 - Politics & Policy

School districts sue tech giants over youth mental health crisis

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Logos of some social media applications seen on a smartphone screen. Photo: Chesnot/Getty Images

A slew of school districts across the country are suing social media companies, alleging that the tech giants are contributing to a youth mental health crisis.

Catch up quick: The first of the lawsuits was filed in January by Seattle Public Schools, alleging that social media companies had intentionally designed and marketed their platforms to attract youth and had violated Washington state's public nuisance law.

State of play: California's San Mateo County Board of Education and Superintendent Nancy Magee filed a lawsuit last Monday alleging that YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat as well as their parent companies are "knowingly creating this unprecedented mental health crisis."

  • The suit alleged that the companies used artificial intelligence and machine learning to intentionally design "their platforms to be addictive and to deliver harmful content to youth."
  • Pennsylvania's Bucks County filed a lawsuit last Wednesday in California federal court alleging that the companies running TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and YouTube have fueled the youth mental health crisis by designing and marketing their platforms in ways that "encourage youth addiction."
  • “For too long these companies have exploited developing minds without consequence, exchanging our children’s mental wellbeing for billions of dollars in ad revenue,” Bucks County Commissioner Chair Bob Harvie said in a press release.

The big picture: Experts have repeatedly warned of the connection between heavy social media use and mental health issues in children.

  • The San Mateo lawsuit points to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that showed youth were experiencing rising rates of poor mental health and suicide risk.

Social media companies have pointed to their parental control features and kids' safety efforts, arguing that younger users won't abandon these apps but it's important for parents to play a role in ensuring kids are using them in a healthy manner, Axios' Ashley Gold writes.

  • A Google spokesperson referred Axios back to a previous comment, 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 well being."
  • "Nothing is more important to us than the wellbeing of our community," a spokesperson for Snapchat told Axios in a statement, adding, "we are constantly evaluating how we continue to make our platform safer, including through new education, features and protections."
  • A spokesperson for TikTok declined to comment on pending litigation.

Editor's note: This article has been updated with a response from a TikTok spokesperson.

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