Seattle schools sue social media companies for having 'exploited the vulnerable brains of youth'

The school district claimed almost 50 percent of students in Washington state spend one to three hours a day on social media, and that 30 percent say they spend three or more hours on the platforms. 

Ari Hoffman Seattle WA
Seattle Public Schools filed a lawsuit on Friday against Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, and Snapchat, blaming them for the mental health crisis among youth.

According to the 91-page complaint filed in US District Court, the plaintiffs allege that the social media companies have created a public nuisance by targeting children with their products.

The district blames the tech companies for worsening mental health and behavioral disorders such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and cyberbullying. According to the complaint, the tech companies make it more difficult to educate students and forced the schools to hire additional mental health professionals, develop lessons about the effects of social media, and provide additional training to teachers.

Superintendent Brent Jones said in a statement, "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."

The complaint stated, "Defendants have successfully exploited 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. Worse, the content Defendants curate and direct to youth is too often harmful and exploitive ...."

Section 230 of the Federal Communications Decency Act protects online companies from liability for what third-party users post on their platforms.

However, the lawsuit argued that the provision does not protect the tech giants’ behavior in this case. "Plaintiff is not alleging Defendants are liable for what third parties have said on Defendants’ platforms but, rather, for Defendants’ own conduct. Defendants affirmatively recommend and promote harmful content to youth, such as pro-anorexia and eating disorder content."

According to the lawsuit, from 2009 to 2019, there was an average 30 percent increase in the number of Seattle Public Schools students who felt "so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row" that they stopped doing typical activities.

The reading and math proficiency of Washington state students has also dramatically fallen since 2019 but despite the tanking scores, Seattle Public Schools passed a budget that gave more money to racial equity programs than all language arts and STEM courses combined.

The school district is seeking a court order for the companies to stop creating a public nuisance, to award damages, and to pay for prevention education and treatment.

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed in 2021 that the company knew its subsidiary Instagram negatively affected teenagers by harming their body image and making eating disorders and thoughts of suicide worse, and alleged the platform hid its own research from investors and the public.

Snap told KOMO News they had worked to protect teens who use their platforms. "We will continue working to make sure our platform is safe and to give Snapchatters dealing with mental health issues resources to help them deal with the challenges facing young people today.”

The platform launched Here For You in 2020, to help those who might be having a mental health or emotional crisis find resources, and has enabled settings to allow parents to see whom their children contact and expanded content about the new 988 suicide and crisis phone system in the US.

Google spokesperson José Castañeda told KOMO regarding their subsidiary Youtube, "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."

Seattle Public School students were on remote learning longer than most other public schools in the US during the pandemic, even after teachers’ unions demanded faculty be prioritized for the COVID vaccines. The district has continued to see enrollment fall as the schools remained closed and even after reopening. Scores also continue to plummet. 

The school district claimed almost 50 percent of students in Washington state spend one to three hours a day on social media, and that 30 percent say they spend three or more hours on the platforms. 

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