Is social media to blame for the youth mental health crisis?

Several school systems across the U.S. would say so, which is why they’ve recently sued a number of social media companies for being a key contributor to the growing student mental health issue.

The lawsuits began in January with Seattle Public Schools. Now, other states have followed, including California, Florida, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. According to lawyers, more suits are likely underway. 

Seattle Public Schools (SPS) believes TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and YouTube should be held accountable for their alleged intentional targeting of young people and violating Washington state’s public nuisance law. SPS’s suit noted that 90 percent of social media users are between the ages of 13 to 17.

SPS asserted that research has shown that social media platforms “exploit the same neural circuitry as gambling and recreational drugs to keep consumers using their products as much as possible.” The suit said that the school system has also seen an uptick in young people “who say they cannot stop or control their anxiety, who feel so sad and hopeless they stop doing the activities they used to love, who are considering suicide,” or who have made plans or attempts to commit suicide.

Last week, California’s San Mateo County Board of Education and Superintendent Nancy Magee filed a lawsuit that accused YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat, along with their parent companies, of “knowingly creating this unprecedented mental health crisis.” The suit said the companies enable “their platforms to be addictive and to deliver harmful content to youth.”

The San Mateo County lawsuit pointed to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that showed alarming rates of suicidal thoughts and depression among high school students. The suit mentioned that the increasing mental health crisis coincided with the increase in popularity of social media. The suit also cited President Biden’s words in the State of the Union that social media is “an experiment they are running on our children for profit.”

The superintendent of San Mateo County Schools, Nancy Magee, shared in an interview that there have been “very serious” cyberbullying issues that came from social media, and it’s nearly impossible to have the companies take down content. She also talked about the vandalism that social media inspired, such as stealing soap dispensers and breaking mirrors.

“The social media companies create the platforms and the tools, but the impacts are felt by schools, and I would really like to see an understanding of that,” Magee stated. “And then that the education community receives the resources in both people and tools to help support students adequately.”

Also last week, Pennsylvania’s Bucks County filed a lawsuit purporting that social media companies “encourage youth addiction.”

“For too long these companies have exploited developing minds without consequence, exchanging our children’s mental wellbeing for billions of dollars in ad revenue,” said Bucks County Commissioner Chair, Bob Harvie. “The negative effects these platforms have are real, they are serious, they are quantifiable, and they cannot be allowed to continue.” 

Social media company representatives have responded they prioritize the safety of young users. They pointed to measures designed to protect young users, such as enabling parental controls and instilling age restrictions.

A Google spokesperson explained, “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.”

“Nothing is more important to us than the wellbeing of our community,” a spokesperson for Snapchat said, adding, “we are constantly evaluating how we continue to make our platform safer, including through new education, features and protections.”

According to news legal analyst and civil rights attorney Areva Martin, by the end of the year, several other school districts will likely file similar lawsuits, and perhaps even the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Justice will as well.


Could your students be struggling with mental health? Here are tips and resources to support the kids in your care.

 

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