Seattle Public Schools sue social media over youth mental health crisis

Jan 9, 2023, 9:17 AM | Updated: 6:15 pm

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In this photo illustration the logo of US online social media and social networking service Twitter (C) is displayed on a smartphone screen on January 07, 2023 in Glastonbury, England. Based in San Francisco, California, Twitter was created March 2006. In October 2022, entrepreneur Elon Musk acquired Twitter for a reported US$44 billion, gaining control of the platform. On December 20, 2022, after numerous controversies Musk announced he would step down as CEO once a replacement had been found. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

(Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Seattle Public Schools (SPS) has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court alleging that social media companies have created a mental health crisis by targeting their products to children.

SPS filed the lawsuit against the creators of apps like TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and Snapchat for worsening mental health and behavioral disorders, including anxiety, depression, disordered eating, and cyberbullying. According to the American Psychological Association, one in five children aged 13 to 17 now suffers from a mental health disorder.

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Superintendent Brent Jones spoke to how much social media is impacting today’s students, pointing to the fact that more than 90% of youth today use social media, with almost 50% of teenagers in the state spending between one and three hours a day and 30% averaging more than three hours a day on social media.

“It has become increasingly clear that many children are burdened by mental health challenges. 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,” Jones said in a statement from the district. “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.”

School Board President Brandon Hersey explained why it was so important that the school was taking active steps to address the role of social media in the mental health struggle of students. Last year, 76% of U.S. public schools reported increased concern about students’ anxiety, depression, and trauma.

“Our first and greatest priority is the health and well-being of our students. Clearly, this includes the social and emotional harm that they suffer because of the negative impacts of social media,” Hersey wrote. “By taking aim at the social media companies, we are sending a clear message that it is time for them to prioritize the health of children over the revenues they make from advertising.”

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While federal law — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — helps protect online companies from liability arising from what third-party users post on their platforms, the lawsuit argues that provision does not protect the tech giants’ behavior in this case.

“Plaintiff is not alleging Defendants are liable for what third-parties have said on Defendants’ platforms but, rather, for Defendants’ own conduct,” the lawsuit said. “Defendants affirmatively recommend and promote harmful content to youth, such as pro-anorexia and eating disorder content.”

Parents dropping off their children at Roosevelt High School told KIRO Newsradio they believe they have a role in limiting social media usage, but it’s a struggle and they notice school staff are struggling to keep up with mental health accommodations.

Laura Lauzen has three daughters in the school district and said she thinks the tech companies should be held accountable.

“Their moods definitely change after they’ve been staring at their phones for a while, and I notice they’re a little bit more self-conscious,” she said.

Lauzen said she’s noticed school staff diverting more time and resources to mental health, but she wants accountability.

“Someone has to do something to help these kids and to help the school district figure out what to do,” she said.

When asked about their time on social media, students had mixed reactions.

“I actually like social media a lot,” said Willie, a senior at the RHS. “I use it every day to post ski stuff, bike stuff, all that kind of stuff.”

“But I could definitely see how it could negatively impact other people,” he added.

“I try not to stay on it too much,” said Atticus, a sophomore at the school. “But I can see how it affects people.”

When asked how he feels the more time he spends on the apps, Atticus said he feels “drained and tired mostly.” Willie disagreed, saying he focuses on the content he enjoys.

During a press conference Monday, the state’s top education official, Chris Reykdal, briefly addressed the lawsuit, saying he supports the effort to bring awareness to the intersection of social media and mental health.

“There is something profoundly different about being a young person on planet earth today, if this lawsuit sheds light on that and if the industry asks hard questions about how to double down in their protection of young people, I think that’s good.”

Educators have repeatedly sounded the alarm about what they call an ongoing mental health crisis among youth in King County, saying they do not have the staff to address all the needs of their students. During the SPS strike before the fall semester, teachers told KIRO Newsradio their classrooms were suffering because of the lack of available resources.

In emailed statements from Meta and Snap Inc., the companies said they have worked to protect young people who use their platforms.

“While we can’t comment on the specifics of active litigation, nothing is more important to us than the wellbeing of our community,” a Snapchat spokesperson wrote in a statement to KIRO Newsradio. “Snapchat was designed to help people communicate with their real friends without some of the public pressure and social comparison features of traditional social media platforms, and it intentionally makes it hard for strangers to contact young people.

“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,” the Snap spokesperson continued. “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.”

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“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,” wrote Antigone Davis, the Global Head of Safety at Meta. “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,” Davis continued. “We’ll continue to work closely with experts, policymakers, and parents on these important issues.”

Internal studies revealed by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen in 2021 showed that the company knew that Instagram negatively affected teenagers by harming their body image and making eating disorders and thoughts of suicide worse. She alleged that the platform prioritized profits over safety and hid its own research from investors and the public.

The school district is asking the court to order the companies to stop creating a public nuisance, to award damages, and to pay for prevention education and treatment for excessive and problematic use of social media.

Sam Campbell and The Associated Press contributed to this report 

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Seattle Public Schools sue social media over youth mental health crisis