School districts say social media is damaging students’ mental they are suing

School districts say social media is damaging students’ mental they are suing
School districts say social media is damaging students’ mental they are suing

A growing number of school districts are following the lead of Seattle Public Schools in suing major social media companies over the deteriorating mental health of their students.

Their argument: These companies design highly addictive apps and market their products to kids who are especially vulnerable to manipulation. At the same time, school districts have had to deal with the fallout from the harm these apps have done to students’ mental health, the lawsuit said.

While legal experts doubt the suits will win in court, they may have more success in the court of public opinion.

“Essentially, the school is saying, ‘Look what’s going on with our young people, and you social media companies have to deal with this,'” said Robert Hattani, a professor of education at Kansas State University, a former school administrator, and an education expert. Take charge of ‘the law.’ There are, no doubt, problems. The question is, how do social media companies take some sort of responsibility for this problem? “
It’s not really about the money, he said, “but getting them to change their approach.”
The Seattle area broke new legal ground when it filed lawsuits against major social media companies in January: ByteDance (which owns TikTok), Google (which owns YouTube), Meta (which owns Facebook and Instagram), Snap (which owns Snapchat) and Twitter .

King County, where the Seattle school district is located, has seen an increase in suicides, suicide attempts and mental health-related emergency room visits among schoolchildren, the complaint said. In the ten years since 2009, there has been a 30% increase in the number of students in the school system who reported “being so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more that they stopped doing some daily activities,” which is about the time it takes to use smart Mobile access to social media is becoming popular among teens and young adults.

The Seattle lawsuit argues that students who suffer from anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges perform worse in school and are more likely to underperform in class or skip classes altogether, which affects the school’s ability to fulfill its mission. Rising mental health problems among students have also put greater pressure on school resources, forcing school districts to shift funds away from academics and toward hiring mental health professionals and staff trained to identify and work with children at risk.

The lawsuit seeks financial compensation for the school district and asks the court to declare the social media company’s practices a public nuisance under Washington state law.

Education Week reached out to the social media companies named in the complaint, but did not hear back from Google until this article was published.

“We invest heavily in creating a safe experience for children on our platform and have introduced strong protections and dedicated features to prioritize their well-being,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement to Education Weekly. For example, with Family Link, we’re giving parents the ability to set reminders, limit screen time, and block certain types of content on supervised devices.”

Experts point to weaknesses in school district’s legal arguments

Now, at least nine more school districts Municipalities in Arizona, California, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington state have also filed similar lawsuits, according to local media reports. That number is expected to grow as at least five other school districts weigh whether to file their own lawsuits or join existing ones.

But experts say it’s not necessarily straightforward to link social media, students’ mental health and who is in charge.

“Providing recommendations of videos you might watch, offering social media services where people can interact with each other, are generally protected by the First Amendment,” said Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor and expert on First Amendment law. ) explain. “Governments generally don’t impose liability on publishers for material they publish that causes psychological harm to some users. You can’t sue a studio for showing a movie to the detriment of a small audience.”

Volokh said the fact that the case involved a minor may not matter because children also have First Amendment rights.

The Seattle complaint underscores that social media companies design their algorithms and platforms to increase engagement and usage, he said. While the complaint argues that doing so manipulates the minds of vulnerable young people, Volokh says there’s another way to look at it: “It’s just saying they work hard to deliver a product that users actually love.”

In the Seattle lawsuit, Volokh said labeling such actions a public nuisance does not provide social media companies with clear rules about what content or commercial practices are and are not.

“They say it’s a nuisance — it’s bad for society. It’s a very vague and potentially very broad rule, and it’s hard for anyone to figure out how it’s going to work,” he said. “If legislators want to pass a law that says, ‘You can’t let people under 16 use your platform unless you have parental permission, or you have to limit the amount of time people under 15 can spend on your platform,'” […] These laws will still be challenged on First Amendment grounds, but at least it will give platforms some direction as to what they are and are not allowed to do. “

Hachiya of Kansas said that while the lawsuit cites a barrage of studies showing social media’s detrimental effects on the mental health of children and teens, blaming social media companies and their practices for the overall decline in teen mental health may be hard to swallow.

“There are too many interventions,” Hatani said. “What is parental involvement? What is parental oversight? How divided is the country overall? Economic and other pressures? Social media can’t just be the source of the problem.”

But the fact remains that school districts are being asked to shoulder a significant burden when it comes to the deteriorating mental health of their students.

The lawsuits could be a wake-up call for their communities, said Jeanne L. Surface, a professor of educational leadership at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who specializes in school law.

These lawsuits send a message to the community: “‘Wake up, come on, we need [social media companies] Take some responsibility here,'” Surface said.

State legislatures are also cracking down on social media

For any area that might be considering filing a similar complaint, Volokh offers a piece of free legal advice: Check your state’s laws.

“In some states, there are so-called ‘anti-slap’ statutes that allow defendants to dismiss their cases early and potentially require plaintiffs to pay defendants’ attorneys’ fees for constitutionally protected speech when litigation is concluded,” he said. “Right now, there are statutes that exclude lawsuits brought by government entities in the public interest. But I would look carefully at the local laws and make sure that when the lawsuit gets dismissed, as it likely will, the school district doesn’t end up with tech platform legal bills predicament.”

Lawsuits related to the youngest users aren’t the only legal headaches social media companies have to contend with these days. New laws in Arkansas and Utah require social media companies to verify users’ ages and obtain parental consent before allowing minors to set up profiles on their platforms.

The new Utah law imposes a series of additional requirements on accounts used by minors in an effort to limit the addictive nature of social media and provide more opportunities for parents to supervise.Utah has also instituted a social media curfew for users under the age of 18, preventing them from accessing their accounts between 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m.

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