US schools sue Meta, Google and friends over 'youth mental health crisis'
Social media as public nuisance? Seattle may be on to something
Updated Another lawsuit accuses Meta, Alphabet and other tech giants of harming kids in the interest of boosting profits. But this one takes it a step further and alleges that by contributing to the "youth mental health crisis," the companies' social media platforms are exacerbating US schools' counselors and clinics, and directly affecting their ability to educate kids.
Seattle Public Schools, which is Washington state's largest kindergarten through 12th-grade school system, filed the complaint [PDF] on Friday against Meta and its Facebook, Instagram and Siculus subsidiaries; TikTok and its parent company ByteDance; Snap; Alphabet and its subsidiaries Google and YouTube.
It alleges that these big tech companies, which have designed their products to maximize the amount of time users spend scrolling, direct harmful content to tens of millions of kids and teens across the US — for example, promoting graphic images of self-harm, and the so-called "corpse bride diet" to viewers with eating disorders.
When asked about the lawsuit and allegations that their products are hurting school-age kids, the tech companies pointed to their mental-health investments and tools for parents to limit kids' screen time.
"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 told The Register. "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."
A Snap spokesperson noted the company's Here For You campaign to provide users with mental-health resources.
"Nothing is more important to us than the wellbeing of our community," a Snap spokesperson told The Register. "At Snapchat, we curate content from known creators and publishers and use human moderation to review user generated content before it can reach a large audience, which greatly reduces the spread and discovery of harmful content.
"We also work closely with leading mental health organizations to provide in-app tools for Snapchatters and resources to help support both themselves and their friends. We are constantly evaluating how we continue to make our platform safer, including through new education, features and protections."
Meta and ByteDance did not immediately respond to The Register's inquiries.
Seattle Public Schools, which operates 106 schools with more than 49,000 students, has been "directly impacted" by kids worsening mental health, the court documents say, citing a 30 percent increase in depression among students from 2009 to 2019.
"Students 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, all of which directly affects Seattle Public Schools' ability to fulfill its educational mission," according to the lawsuit.
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Like school districts across the country, Seattle Public Schools and its school-based clinics are one of the primary mental-health services providers for children in the community. But the district's counselors, social workers, psychologists, and nurses are stretched too thin, and they need more financial resources to meet the growing demand for their services, the lawsuit says.
"Plaintiff needs a comprehensive, long-term plan and funding to drive a sustained reduction in the record rates of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and other tragic indices of the mental health crisis its youth are experiencing at Defendants' hands," it reads.
The "excessive" and "habitual use" of the tech firms' social media platforms constitute a "public nuisance affecting Seattle Public Schools" and, as such, the lawsuit seeks to abate the public nuisance and get Meta, Google, and friends to fund educational and treatment for the "problematic use of social media" among kids and teens.
"It has become increasingly clear that many children are burdened by mental health challenges," Superintendent Brent Jones said in a statement [PDF].
"Our students — and young people everywhere — face unprecedented, learning and life struggles that are amplified by the negative impacts of increased screen time, unfiltered content, and potentially addictive properties of social media," he continued. "We are confident and hopeful that this lawsuit is the first step toward reversing this trend for our students, children throughout Washington state, and the entire country." ®
Updated to add
"We want 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," Antigone Davis, global head of safety at Meta told
"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 of the content we remove or take action on, we identify over 99% of it before it's reported to us. We'll continue to work closely with experts, policymakers and parents on these important issues."