San Mateo County, home to 23 school districts and part of Northern California’s Silicon Valley, filed a 107-page complaint in federal court last week alleging that social media companies used advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning technology to create addictive platforms that harm young people.
“The results are catastrophic,” the paper claims, saying more children than ever are struggling with their mental health amid overuse of the platforms. “There is simply no historical parallel to the crisis facing the nation’s youth now,” it said.
The suit points to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing rising rates of depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts among high school students across the country. The growing popularity of social media, he argues, “keeps pace” with the deterioration of young people’s mental health. He cited President Biden’s remarks in his State of the Union address that the tactics used by social media companies are “an experiment they are conducting on our children for profit.”
San Mateo County Schools Superintendent Nancy Magee said in an interview that the rampant use of social media has taken its toll on schools to the point where administrators have seen a spike in mental health emergencies during the school day. There were “very serious” incidents of social media-related cyberbullying — with content “almost impossible” to get companies to remove — and school threats that kept students at home, she said.
Magee pointed to other harms, such as vandalism of high school restrooms during what was dubbed the “Lick Licking Challenge.” Students across the country stole soap dispensers, flooded toilets, smashed mirrors — then showed off their stunts on TikTok.
The student mental health crisis is much bigger than we realize
“The social media companies create the platforms and the tools, but the impact is felt by the schools, and I’d really like to see an understanding of that,” Magee said. “And then the education community gets the resources in both people and tools to help students be adequately supported.”
The social media companies did not comment directly on the litigation, but in written statements they said they prioritized the safety of teenagers and described measures to protect young users.
TikTok cites age-restricted features, with restrictions on direct messages and live streams, and default private accounts for younger teens. It also pointed to restrictions on nightly notifications; a parental control called Family Pairing that allows parents to control content, privacy and screen time; and expert resources, including suicide and eating disorder prevention hotlines directly accessible from the app.
You Tube, which is owned by Google, has Family Link, which allows parents to set reminders, limit screen time and block certain types of content on controlled devices, spokesman Jose Castaneda said. Protections for users under 18 include default uploads to personal and well-being reminders for breaks and bedtime.
Meta, which owns Instagram, said more than 30 tools support teens and families, including age-verification technology, notifications for regular breaks and features that allow parents to limit time on Instagram. “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 percent of it before it’s reported to us,” said Antigona Davis, Global Head of Safety at Meta.
Snapchat said its platform “curates content from well-known creators and publishers and uses human moderation to review user-generated content before it reaches a large audience.” Doing so “significantly reduces the spread and discovery of harmful content,” a spokesperson said, adding that Snapchat is working with mental health organizations to provide in-app tools and resources for users.
The first of the lawsuits, filed Jan. 6 for Seattle Public Schools, says research shows social media companies “use the same neural circuitry as gambling and recreational drugs to get users to use their products as much as possible.” and that social media is so popular that it is used by 90 percent of those aged 13 to 17. One study found that users check Snapchat 30 times a day, it said. Nearly 20 percent of teenagers use YouTube “almost constantly,” it said.
Seattle has seen a spike in youth “who say they can’t stop or control their anxiety, who feel so sad and hopeless that they stop doing the activities they used to love, who are considering suicide” or making plans to take their own lives or attempt suicide, the suit says.
The crisis in American childhood
Outside of Philadelphia, officials in Bucks County filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the social media companies, making a similar case. Not because they’re against social media, said commission chairman Bob Harvey — who points out that the county itself has used TikTok — but rather that the algorithms that make teenagers “keep watching, keep focusing, keep scroll’ influence children. mental health.
“The way we look at it is no different than the way the cigarette companies manipulated nicotine levels to make sure people would continue to smoke,” Harvey said. “… Our number one priority is simply to get the behavior of these companies to change.”
School districts typically seek to have social media companies’ conduct declared a violation of public policy, their practices changed, and damages paid to fund the prevention, education, and treatment of excessive and problematic social media use.
The 109-page lawsuit on behalf of Bucks County highlights the worsening mental health record, saying the problems have “stepped in step with the growth of social media platforms intentionally designed to attract and addict youth to the platforms by amplifying harmful material, dosing to users with dopamine hits and thereby driving youth engagement and advertising revenue.”
It later said that social apps “hijack a compulsion in youth and teens — to connect — that can be even more powerful than hunger or greed.”
In northern New Jersey, the Chathams School District has invested more resources over the years to help students struggling with anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, said attorney Michael Innes, whose firm is representing the district in its lawsuit filed in mid-February. The firm filed a similar lawsuit against another New Jersey school district, Irvington Public Schools, in early March.
“We’ve talked to school districts that have made a decision between spending on mental health and spending on classroom instruction,” Innes said.
For Richard Weisbord, a psychologist and senior lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, lawsuits may make a lot of sense, but parents, coaches and others involved in teens’ lives must become more effective in talking to teens about the benefits and the dangers of social media.
One problem, Weissbourd said, is that many parents are busy with their own devices. In recent research, he said, many teens report that their primary caregiver uses a smartphone or computer at times when they want help or to be together.
Marisol Garcia, a therapist at Northwestern University’s Family Institute, said social media can be a powerful tool for connection, but the downsides are also significant. She wasn’t surprised that schools started filing lawsuits, saying they want to do what they believe is good for the mental and physical health of their students.
The long-term effects of social media use — on attention span, social skills, mental health — are unclear, she said. The lawsuit, she said, “could be a positive thing.”