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Seattle Public Schools sue TikTok, Meta for youth mental health crisis

SPS filed a lawsuit against social media companies claiming they contributed to the youth mental health crisis.

SEATTLE — Seattle Public Schools, the largest school district in the state, is suing major social media companies behind TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and Snapchat over their impact on youth mental health.

Attorneys said Seattle Public Schools (SPS)  may be the first district in the country to sue social media companies. The 92-page lawsuit claims the social media giants violated Washington’s public nuisance law and intentionally contributed to the youth mental health crisis in the state.

More than 16 million daily TikTok users are under the age of 14. That's just one statistic laid out in a lawsuit SPS hit social media giants like Meta, Snapchat, and YouTube with Friday.

The school district is represented by Keller Rohrback, a Seattle-based firm that routinely litigates against the most prominent corporate defendants on behalf of school districts and local governments.

The lawsuit alleges that social media companies have intentionally contributed to the youth mental health crisis.

“Now you can actually put a number on whether you're popular or not, how many likes you have versus how many likes I don't have,” said Dr. Lucia Magis-Weinberg.

Magis-Weinberg, a psychology professor at the University of Washington studies adolescent development in the digital era and what’s driving the mental health crisis.

“It's really a complex mix of things, which social media, of course, plays a role. but it's not the full story,” Magis-Weinberg said.

The lawsuit goes into extensive detail about its allegations that social media companies intentionally market to younger users to keep them coming back.

In a statement from Felicia J. Craick, an attorney for Keller Rohrback, said, “As of last year, almost 50% of teenagers in the state spent between one and three hours a day on social media and 30% averaged more than three hours a day.”

The suit claims social media has contributed to an increase in anxiety, depression, cyberbullying and eating disorders, especially among young girls.

“We know that comparing ourselves is very detrimental to our self-esteem to our mental health. and there are certain aspects of social media that make comparing yourself to another person easier than it was in the past,” said Magis-Weinberg.

The lawsuit claims SPS and its more than 49,000 students have been directly impacted.

“The increase in suicides, attempted suicides, and mental-health ER visits is no coincidence. As alleged in the complaint, this crisis was already growing before the pandemic and research has identified social media as playing a major role in causing mental health problems in youth,” a statement from Craick read.

The lawsuit cites that from 2009 -2019, 30% of SPS students reported feeling sad or hopeless almost every day for more than two weeks.

The lawsuit said the district has been forced to divert resources, hire counselors, train teachers to recognize mental health issues, and plan lessons about the dangers of the platforms.

“It has become increasingly clear that many children are burdened by mental health challenges. 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. We are confident and hopeful that this lawsuit is the first step toward reversing this trend for our students, children throughout Washington state, and the entire country," Superintendent Brent Jones said in a statement.

The lawsuit said SPS needs more school counselors, social workers, psychologists, and nurses to meet the high demand for services.

Attorneys said while King County recently allocated additional resources for school-based services, taxpayers should not bear the burden for the mental health crisis social media companies have created and the lawsuit aims to hold these companies accountable.

School Board President Brandon Hersey said in the statement, “Our first and greatest priority is the health and well-being of our students. Clearly, this includes the social and emotional harm that they suffer because of the negative impacts of social media. By taking aim at the social media companies, we are sending a clear message that it is time for them to prioritize the health of children over the revenues they make from advertising.”

The lawsuit is asking for the maximum amount of damages permitted by law. 

The Global Head of Safety for Meta, the company which owns Facebook and Instagram, responded to SPS's suit saying, "We want teens to be safe online... We automatically set teens’ accounts to private when they join Instagram, and we send notifications encouraging them to take regular breaks. We don’t allow content that promotes suicide, self-harm or eating disorders."

Youtube, which owns Google, also provided a response to the suit, telling KING 5, "We have invested heavily in creating safe experiences for children... We provide parents with the ability to set reminders, limit screen time and block specific types of content on supervised devices," according to a spokesperson.

Meanwhile, like many across the country, Erik Sarvela, a father of seven in Olympia, said his older children are being exposed to mature topics and behaviors on social media.

"Vaping or doing whatever they're trying to do, you know, dress sexily at-- not that age where it's really okay to do that yet," said Sarvela. "They can put out whatever they want of themselves on the internet and that's kind of dangerous."

But his teenagers are not alone. According to Seattle Public Schools, last year nearly one in three Washington teenagers spent more than three hours per day on social media, on average. The district's lawyers tell KING 5 that excessive and problematic use of social media is leading to increased rates of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem among other things.

They added that SPS, specifically, has been "significantly impacted" by a resulting mental health crisis.

The district's suit alleges that teens' brains aren't fully developed, and that they "consequently lack the same emotional maturity, impulse control, and psychological resiliency as other more mature users." That is something Sarvela echoed, adding that when his teens see something that is beyond their maturity level, "it can really affect how [they] see themselves, see other people, see their lives around them." But at the same time, Sarvela doesn't blame his kids.

"I was kind of trying to show off as I was younger. And ya know, I can see where they're coming from," said Sarvela.

He is just doubtful whether a lawsuit will help.

"Are they really going to be able to stop Tik Tok? Or Instagram? We've tried to stop Tik Tok or Instagram with the kids and then they'll just make another account."

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