Earlier this week, the Seattle Public Schools (SPS) filed a complaint in U.S. District Court against multiple social media companies, arguing that the platforms are causing harm to students’ social, emotional, and mental health. The firms included TikTok, Meta-owned Facebook and Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube.
The neighboring Kent School District joined the 91-page complaint, which maintains that the social media companies have created a public nuisance by targeting their products to children. The complaint blames social media for behavioral disorders including anxiety, depression, disordered eating, and cyberbullying; as well as suggesting it is hard to educate students who are increasingly distracted by the platforms.
“The goal is not to eliminate social media, but to change how these companies operate and force them to take responsibility. We are asking these popular companies to maximize their efforts to safeguard students, who are their most vulnerable consumers,” SPS announced.
“Young people across the nation are struggling with anxiety, depression, thoughts of self-harm, and suicidal ideation. This mental health crisis impacts the SPS mission to educate students by draining resources from schools,” added SPS.
TikTok declined to comment on the lawsuit, but a spokesperson said via an email that the platform prioritizes the safety and well-being of teens with age-restrictions, and screentime management tools.
The other social media companies did not respond to a request for comment.
Kids And Social Media
This isn’t the first time that a social media firm has faced a lawsuit, but it remains unclear if this will do little more than get a few headlines.
“For a school district to file a suit against major companies blaming the mental issues of students looks past the overarching problem – namely where do parents fall in regarding their responsibility. That’s a question that is surely going to be asked,” explained Jason Mollica, professorial lecturer in the School of Communication at the American University. “Parents should be watching what their kids are doing online.”
This isn’t to say that the problem doesn’t exist, and Mollica noted that there have been plenty of studies that show that too much social media exposure isn’t good for younger users – it can impact self-esteem and body image, and be a conduit for cyberbullying.
“We know very well that Facebook and Twitter haven’t been the best places for positive reinforcement,” added Mollica.
However, a lawsuit isn’t likely to get very far.
Section 230 of Title 47 of the United States Code (47 USC § 230), part of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, essentially provides a legal shield for Internet companies noted Dr. Clifford Lampe, professor of information and associate dean for academic affairs at the School of Information at the University of Michigan.
He added that we shouldn’t expect that social media companies have the best interest of their users.
“The platforms are built around commoditized attention, and they’re not concerned with health and wellness. They want to keep us engaged, so they have the same care as a shepherd has for his flock,” Lampe suggested.
At issue are the “Dark Patterns” used by the companies to keep users engaged longer. Instead of lawsuits, experts suggest that these younger users should be educated to understand how they’re being manipulated by these platforms.
This is true not just of children either.
“We need to be more social media literate so that we’re able to self-identify when we’re ‘doom scrolling’ or simply spending too much time on the platforms,” said Lampe.
The Latest Moral Panic
What is also notable about the lawsuit is that it harkens back to past attempts to lay the blame for societal problems on the latest craze. Before social media, it was video games, and before that, it was movies, heavy metal music, Dungeons & Dragons, comic books, jazz music, and even written novels.
Every generation wants to hold the latest big thing at fault.
“There has always been something to blame,” said Mollica. “The band AC/DC was sued in the 1980s after a fan committed suicide, and more recently we’ve seen video games companies face Congressional hearings.”
This is just the latest attempt to shift the blame.
“There have long been technological moral panics, such as when the telephone came into the home, as it was thought that a stranger could ‘enter’ your house without an invitation,” said Lampe. “But this goes all the way back to Socrates who warned that the written word could ruin memory!”
Mollica also said that blame shouldn’t also simply be shifted to the parents, for the reasons already stated on how social media companies conduct their businesses. It should be about education rather than lawsuits.
“A lawsuit isn’t going to be helpful in the least in making social media a better place for young users,” he noted. “It won’t really accomplish anything. If age barriers are placed, kids will find a way around it. But it likely won’t even get to that. Instead, there should be a way to ensure that kids aren’t taken down the wrong path when using the platforms and that involves teaching them to understand what they’re using.”