Washington School District Sues Social Media Platforms Over Youth Mental Health Crisis

The lawsuit claims that social media companies intentionally harmed young people’s mental health.

In a complaint filed on January 6, Washington’s largest public school system alleges that several social media companies, including Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, and Google, have created a mental health crisis among young people in the U.S.

The 92 page complaint, filed with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, Seattle School District No. 1, states that the social media companies have designed and operated their platforms in ways that manipulate the psychology and neurophysiology of their users. Specifically, by increasing the frequency and amount of time an individual uses their platforms.

In addition, the complaint states that social media companies have targeted young people as a part of their business model by “purposely designing, refining, and operating them to exploit the neurophysiology of the brain’s reward systems to keep users coming back, coming back frequently, and staying on the respective platforms for as long as possible.”

Moreover, the school district explains that the social media giants have exploited young people’s developing brains by “hooking” students into excessive positive feedback loops that often contains harmful content.

The school district states that social media companies’ misconduct has been a substantial factor in the growing youth mental health crisis — nationally and in King County, Washington — where the district is located. Specifically, the school system claims a 30% increase in students exhibiting depressive symptoms in the past decade.

The complaint also says the platforms have violated Washington’s public nuisance law.

“Defendants’ conduct is especially injurious to Seattle Public Schools,” the complaint says, “because, as a direct and proximate cause of Defendants’ conduct creating or assisting in the creation of a public nuisance, Plaintiff and its students and employees have sustained and will continue to sustain substantial injuries.”

These injuries include the district’s need to hire additional employees to address mental, emotional, and social health issues, and increase training to identify students with these issues.

“Defendants knew or reasonably should have known that their design, promotion, and operation of their platforms would cause students to use their platforms excessively, that their marketing methods were designed to appeal to youth, and that their active efforts to increase youth use of their platforms were causing harm to youth and to schools,” the complaint states.

According to the court document, volumes of research points to social media as a factor in the increase in mental, emotional, developmental, and behavioral disorders among youth.

For example, the complaint cites a 2019 research review that found social media use was correlated to depression, anxiety, and psychological distress in adolescents.

In a statement to Axios, a Snapchat spokesperson said, “while we can’t comment on the specifics of active litigation, nothing is more important to us than the wellbeing of our community. 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 Seattle school district is demanding a jury trial and asking for an order requiring the social media companies to cease engaging in actions contributing to the public nuisance described in the complaint.

They also request awards, including equitable relief to fund education and treatment of excessive media use, actual and compensatory damages, and attorney’s fees.

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