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3 reasons why Seattle schools are suing Big Tech over a youth mental health crisis

Concerns about social media's impact on children and teens have increased in recent years.
Richard Drew
/
AP
Concerns about social media's impact on children and teens have increased in recent years.

Updated January 11, 2023 at 1:34 PM ET

Worries about social media's effect on hardwired kids are coming from all corners.

President Joe Biden on Wednesday urged Congress to hold Big Tech accountable for dangerous content shared on social media, and increase privacy protections specifically for children.

"Millions of young people are struggling with bullying, violence, trauma and mental health. We must hold social-media companies accountable for the experiment they are running on our children for profit," Biden wrote in an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal.

State prosecutors are investigating social media's impact on kids. Congress has called hearings on the topic. And schools are ringing alarm bells too.

Seattle Public Schools on Friday filed a 91-page lawsuit against the companies behind TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and YouTube in a federal district court.

The public school district alleges that students are being recommended harmful content online, exacerbating a mental health crisis, and social media companies are allowing it to happen.

Here's what you need to know about the lawsuit.

The school system accuses social media platforms of increasing students' anxiety and depression

Seattle Public Schools alleges that the very design of these platforms, which seek to maximize the amount of time users spend on them, is flawed and dangerous–particularly to kids.

They argue that the longer people stay on social media, the more ads those companies sell and thus the more money they stand to make. And some features, such as push notifications, are designed to draw users in, making it hard to ignore, especially for kids, the school district alleges.

It also references studies that suggest teens who spend a lot of time using screens are more likely to receive diagnoses of depression or anxiety, encounter cyber bullying and not get enough sleep.

According to the lawsuit, social media companies have "exploited the vulnerable brains of youth, hooking tens of millions of students across the country into positive feedback loops of excessive use and abuse."

The lawsuit cites a 2021 investigation by the Wall Street Journal, in which several teenage girls reported developing eating disorders or relapsing after TikTok promoted extreme diet videos to them.

The issue of potentially dangerous content on social media is not a new one.

As NPR reported in 2021, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former product manager, testified before Congress, saying that executives hid research about the risks the company's products posed to kids.

Since then, Meta, Facebook and Instagram's parent company, has ramped up safety features for teens, including efforts to prevent unwanted contact from adults, tools that let parents limit the amount of time their children spend on Instagram and age-verification technology.

"We want teens to be safe online," Meta Global Head of Safety Antigone Davis told NPR in an email. "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."

She did not comment directly on the Seattle public schools' lawsuit.

Jose Castenada, a Google spokesperson, said that the company, which owns YouTube, has "introduced strong protections and dedicated features to prioritize their well being." He also did not comment directly on the lawsuit.

A spokesperson for Snap and a spokesperson for TikTok said they could not comment on litigation but that users' wellbeing is a priority.

The school system says it doesn't have the resources to manage a crisis made worse by social media

In the lawsuit, Seattle Public Schools says the number of students who report feeling "so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that [they] stopped doing some usual activities" increased by 30% from 2009, when smartphones gained steam, to 2019, by which time they'd become ubiquitous.

"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," said Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Brent Jones in a statement.

But the school system says it doesn't have enough staff to treat the growing number of students seeking mental-health counseling.

"Our obligation is to create the conditions for students to thrive and have high quality learning experiences," said Jones. "The harm caused by these companies runs counter to that."

Nationwide, just over half of all public school systems say they can effectively provide mental health services to students in need according to the National Center of Education.

The Seattle-based law firm Keller Rohrback is representing the school district in the lawsuit on a contingency basis, which means attorneys will not get paid unless they win and companies are required to pay a fine, according to Tim Robinson, the head of media relations for Seattle Public Schools.

Tech companies have a powerful legal shield, but it's about to be challenged

It's nearly impossible to sue social media companies over the content on their platforms because of a law known as Section 230. Part of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, it says tech companies can't be held liable for what others share on their sites.

But that could soon change.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments next month in a case that aims to limit Section 230 and puts social media companies' recommendation algorithms front and center. Those recommendation formulas are at the heart of the Seattle Public Schools' lawsuit too.

Right now, the public school system has a very steep legal road to climb, according to Ryan Calo, a professor at University of Washington's School of Law. But if the plaintiffs in the case before the Supreme Court are successful, it could open the door to this kind of argument, he said.

Calo is not involved in either lawsuit, but he does have two children in Seattle Public Schools, one in 7th grade and the other in 3rd. He said isn't surprised that this is happening in Seattle, the home of tech giants including Amazon and Microsoft, which has always been at the forefront of the internet and the digital world.

Even if the case never gets its day in court, its filing allows the school district to draw attention to the issue, Calo said.

"They can do so as a pretty compelling and sympathetic plaintiff in the form of a school district that cares about its kids."

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (en español: 888-628-9454; deaf and hard of hearing: 800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Mary Yang
Mary Yang is an intern on the Business Desk where she covers technology, media, labor and the economy. She comes to NPR from Foreign Policy where she covered the beginning of Russia's war in Ukraine and built a beat on Southeast Asia, Asia and the Pacific Islands.