Teen Mental Health Crisis Pushes More School Districts to Sue Social Media Giants

More districts claim tech companies are a cause of the youth mental health crisis, with harmful algorithms and practices. Experts cast doubt on trial.

By Marianna McMurdock | March 31, 2023
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The teen mental health crisis has so taxed and alarmed school districts across the country that many are entering legal battles against the social media giants they say have helped cause it, including TikTok, Snap, Meta, YouTube and Google.

At least eleven school districts, one county, and one California county system that oversees 23 smaller districts have filed suits this year, representing roughly 469,000 students. 

Two others in Arizona are considering their own complaints, one superintendent told The 74. Eleven districts in Kentucky voted to pursue similar litigation, as did Pittsburgh Public Schools. Many others across the country are on the verge of doing the same, according to a lawyer representing a New Jersey district.

“Schools, states, and Americans across the country are rightly pushing back against Big Tech putting profits over kids’ safety online,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, co-sponsor of the contested, bipartisan Kids Online Safety Act, told The 74. “These efforts, proliferated by harrowing stories from families amid a worsening youth mental health crisis, underscore the urgency for Congress to act.” 

Algorithms and platform design 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 of Defendants’ social media platforms,” Seattle Public Schools claimed in the first suit filed this January.

Districts in Washington, Oregon, Arizona, New Jersey, California and Florida, Alabama, as well as one Pennsylvania county say tech companies intentionally target young users, exacerbating depression, anxiety, tech addiction and self-harm, straining learning and district finances. 

But the legal fight, whether tried or settled, will not be easy, outside counsel and at least one district leader said. 

“We don’t think that this is a slam dunk case. We think it’s going to be an uphill battle. But our board and I believe that this is in the best interest of our students to do this,” said Andi Fourlis, superintendent of Arizona’s largest district, Mesa Public Schools. “It’s about making the case that we need to do better for our kids.” 

Just how badly Mesa’s teens are hurting is laid out in detail in court filings: More than a third are chronically absent, 3,500 more were involved in disciplinary incidents in 2021-22 than in 2019-20 and the district has seen a “surge” in suicidal ideation and anxiety. 

Buried in the 111-page lawsuit, a high school senior’s video essay illustrates the painful impacts of social media addiction: risky or self-destructive behavior, disconnection from friends.

Simultaneously, state and federal lawmakers are proposing bills to make platforms safer. Senate hearings are underway, featuring parents whose children died by suicide. TikTok’s CEO testified before Congress this month to address concerns about exposure to harmful content. President Joe Biden flagged “the experiment [social media companies] are running on our children for profit,” in his last State of the Union Address.

Both legislative and legal efforts are after similar goals: changing the algorithms and product design believed to be hurting and addicting kids. Through lawsuits, districts also seek financial compensation for the increased mental health services and training they’ve “been forced” to establish. 

“The harms caused by social media companies have impacted the districts’ ability to carry out their core mission of providing education. The expenditures are not sustainable and divert resources from classroom instruction and other programs,” said Michael Innes, partner with Carella Byrne, Cecchi, Olstein, Brody & Agnello, a firm representing New Jersey schools.

Previous complaints against opioid and e-cigarette companies, which levied public nuisance and negligence claims as districts’ social media filings do, resulted in multimillion dollar settlements. 

But some legal experts say there’s a key distinction in this case: Big Tech companies aren’t the ones producing content on these platforms, individuals are. Companies have some hefty legal shields for online content posted by third parties — for now

“School districts are not in the business of suing people … the threshold for initiating litigation is very high,” said Dean Kawamoto, a lawyer for Keller Rohrback, the Seattle-based firm representing four districts, and thousands of others in Juul litigation. 

“I do think it says something that you’ve got a group of schools that have filed now, and I think more are going to join them,” Kawamoto added. 

Some outside counsel are skeptical

“I think there are questions about whether the litigation system is even a coherent way to go about this,” First Amendment scholar and Harvard Law professor Rebecca Tushnet told The 74. “It’s very hard to use individual litigation to get systemic change, excepting in particular circumstances.” 

The exceptions, she added, have clear visions and specific outcomes, like requiring a doctor on-call for safer prison conditions. Those kinds of metrics are difficult to name when it comes to algorithms and mental health. 

What precedent (or lack thereof) tells us

Social media companies’ lawyers are likely to assert free speech protections early and often, including in initial motions to dismiss.

“The conventional wisdom is that if motions to dismiss are denied in cases like this, [companies] are much more likely to settle … reality is actually a little more mixed,” Tushnet said, adding if the claims come after business models, companies fight harder. 

An added challenge is proving causal harm — that social media companies have caused student depression, anxiety, eating disorders or self-harm. The link is one that neuroscientists and researchers are still unearthing, though experts say there’s an urgent need. 

“This is a watershed moment where schools can really roll up their sleeves and do something because — not that they haven’t been in the past — but because it’s so obvious. It’s right in front of them. It’s impacting students’ education,” said Jerry Barone, chief clinical officer at Effective School Solutions, which brings mental health care interventions to schools. 

About 13.5% of teen girls say Instagram makes thoughts of suicide worse; 17% of teen girls say it makes eating disorders worse, according to Meta’s leaked internal research, first revealed in a Wall Street Journal investigation via whistleblower Frances Haugen.

Even if districts are able to provide proof, they may not ever see a judgment made. 

Public nuisance claims in tobacco and opioid mass torts were more successful in “inducing settlements, rather than in courthouse outcomes,” according to Robert Rabin, tort expert and professor at Stanford University. 

While he’s not “dismissive” of districts’ efforts, “the precedents don’t supply clear-cut support for the claims here.”’

The interim

As lawyers work out the details, students are left in the balance. Some are skeptical the suits will amount to anything at all, at least in their adolescence. 

“Why do you guys waste so much time on these useless things that you know get nowhere, when you can do it with things that you know will get somewhere?” said Angela Ituarte, a sophomore at a Seattle high school. 

Many young people interviewed by The 74 described their social media use like a double-edged sword: affirming, a place where they learned about mental health or found community, particularly for queer students of color; and simultaneously dangerous, a place where they connected with adults when they were 14 and saw dangerous diets promoted.

Social media, Ituarte said, makes it seem like self-harm and disordered eating, “are the solution to everything. And it’s hard to get that out of those algorithms — even if you block the accounts or say you’re not interested it still keeps popping up. Usually it’s when things are bad, too.”

In a late February letter to senators, Meta touted a promising initiative to nudge teens toward new topics if they’ve been dwelling on one for extended periods. Only 1 in 5 teens actually moved to a new topic during a weeklong trial. 

To curb cyberbullying, users now get warnings for potentially offensive comments. People only edit or delete their message 50% of the time, according to the company’s responses to Senate inquiries. 

Meta, YouTube and Google did not respond to requests for comment. TikTok told The 74 they cannot comment on ongoing litigation. The company has just started requiring users who say they are under 18 to enter a password after scrolling for an hour.

In a statement to The 74, Snap said they “are constantly evaluating how we continue to make our platform safer.” Snap has partnered with mental health organizations to launch an in-app support system for users who may be experiencing a crisis, and acknowledged that the work may never be done. 

The process has only just begun. If the suits move to trial, some districts will be chosen as bellwethers to represent the many plaintiffs, tasked with regularly contributing to a lengthy trial. 

Still, there’s no doubt in Fourlis’s mind. 

“Sometimes you have to be the first to step forward to take a bold leap so that others can follow,” she said. “Being the superintendent of the largest school district in Arizona, what we do often sets precedents, and I have to be very strategic about that responsibility.”

Disclosure: Campbell Brown, Meta’s vice president of media partnerships, is a co-founder and member of the board of directors of The 74. She played no role in the editing of this article.

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