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US schools sue Meta, Google and friends over 'youth mental health crisis'
Social media as public nuisance? Seattle may be on to something
Jessica Lyons Hardcastle
Tue 10 Jan 2023 // 00:02 UTC
14 comment bubble on white
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
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.
The Register Newsletter
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." ®