Seattle Schools Sue Social Media Giants For Student Mental Health Crisis
The tussle between public schools and social media giants takes a new turn as Seattle district schools raise serious allegations against leading social platforms. In a recent lawsuit, the Seattle Public Schools (SPS) sued the largest social media companies—Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube — for designing their platforms in ways that exploit the neurophysiology of children’s and youths’ brains, contributing to a “youth mental health crisis”.
Social Media Companies Design their Platforms to Target the Young
The lawsuit, filed in early 2023, points to alarming statistics indicating that one in five children aged 13 to 17 now suffers from a mental health disorder, as noted by the Surgeon General. The SPS alleges that these companies have purposefully designed their platforms to foster addictive behavior among the youth, maximizing the time users, particularly youngsters, spend on their platforms.
As social media has come to dominate modern communication, the question of how it affects our mental health, particularly that of younger, more impressionable minds, has taken center stage. Researchers have sought to understand the psychological impact of constant connectivity, curated virtual realities, and the addictive feedback loops created by likes, shares, and other forms of social media engagement. The design of these platforms is no accident; the schools’ lawsuit claims that “Defendants have maximized the time users—particularly youth—spend on their platforms by purposely designing, refining, and operating them to exploit the neurophysiology of the brain’s reward systems to keep users coming back, coming back frequently, and staying on the respective platforms for as long as possible.”
Indeed, the addictive nature of social media is well documented. According to a review published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, the gratification derived from notifications, likes, and comments triggers a release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain, contributing to the pleasure and reward system. This system, when excessively stimulated, can create a cycle of addiction. It’s this addictive cycle that the Seattle school district alleges these social media giants have knowingly capitalized on, exploiting “the vulnerable brains of youth, hooking tens of millions of students across the country into positive feedback loops of excessive use and abuse of Defendants’ social media platforms.”
The Crux of the Lawsuit – Manipulative tactics
The crux of the lawsuit revolves around these corporations’ alleged manipulative tactics that target the vulnerable minds of the youth. According to the allegations, these platforms have created positive feedback loops of excessive use and abuse of social media. The complaint also mentions the promotion of harmful and exploitative content, such as proanorexia and eating disorder content.
Furthermore, the lawsuit points out the disturbing reality of cyberbullying, which has surged in the age of digital communication. The Seattle schools accuse the social media networks of facilitating an environment where such harmful behaviors can thrive, stating, “The more time an individual, especially males, spend on social media, the more likely they are to commit acts of cyberbullying.”
Such online aggression ranges from name-calling to spreading false rumors, receiving unsolicited explicit media or threats of bodily harm, online stalking, and revenge porn. Such experiences inflict deep psychological wounds on the victims, leading to anxiety, depression, and sleep deprivation. These mental health issues, the lawsuit argues, directly hinder students’ performance in school, leading to lower attendance, increased substance use, and more disruptive behavior. All these factors, according to the Seattle Public Schools, are undermining their ability to fulfil their educational mission.
Social Media Companies Actively Curate Harmful Material
One particularly disturbing aspect of the lawsuit’s allegations lies in the type of content that these platforms are accused of directing towards their youthful audience. The district alleges that the content “Defendants curate and direct to youth is too often harmful and exploitative,” providing disturbing examples such as promotion of a “corpse bride” diet advocating for an intake of only 300 calories a day and encouraging self-harm. The schools assert that such harmful content, coupled with the addictive nature of these platforms, has been a “substantial factor in causing a youth mental health crisis.”
Key Points Of The Lawsuit – Damages and Remedies Sought
Legal claim: The suit is filed under Washington state nuisance law defines nuisance as “whatever is injurious to health or indecent or offensive to the senses, or an obstruction to the free use of property, so as to essentially interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of the life and property.” “Nuisance consists in unlawfully doing an act, or omitting to perform a duty, which act or omission either annoys, injures or endangers the comfort, repose, health or safety of others, offends decency . . . or in any way renders other persons insecure in life, or in the use of property.”
The damages that the SPS claims is suffering that the platforms have have disrupted the functions of the schools and caused the plaintiff to spend additional resources on mitigating these mental health problems. Specifically, Seattle Public Schools has been forced to divert and expend additional resources to address the decline in students’ mental, emotional, and social health. This includes hiring more counselors and medical professionals, developing resources, training staff, updating policies, and addressing property damages and disciplinary issues related to the use of social media.
The SPS seeks significant relief in this lawsuit. First and foremost, that the court require that the companies stop engaging in the public nuisance. If SPS wins, a ruling would surely force the court to order that the companies must change the way their platforms are used by children. In addition, SPS also seeks money to reimburse it for the money is has spent on mental health, as well as money to fund prevention education and treatment for excessive and problematic use of social media;
The broader implications of this lawsuit could be enormous. If successful, it could set a precedent for other schools and communities to take similar action, holding social media companies accountable for the detrimental effects of their platforms on young users’ mental health. Such a shift could potentially prompt a large-scale rethink of the way social media platforms are designed, operated, and regulated. This would be a significant win for advocates of stronger regulation of technology companies and could serve as a wake-up call for the industry.
In the meantime, this lawsuit serves as a grim reminder of the urgent need for stronger protections for young people online. The mental health crisis among youth has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with many children and teens spending more time online than ever before due to remote learning and social distancing measures. Schools, parents, and communities must remain vigilant in monitoring young people’s online activities, advocating for their safety and well-being, and demanding accountability from the companies who seek to profit from their engagement.
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