A School District Is Suing Social Media Apps for Exploiting the ‘Vulnerable Brains of Youth’

A School District Is Suing Social Media Apps for Exploiting the 'Vulnerable Brains of Youth'
  • A Seattle school district is suing to combat social media’s negative impact on youth.
  • The district says apps like TikTok and Instagram have “exploited the vulnerable brains of youth.”
  • The move comes a year after a whistleblower accused Facebook of disregarding its harm to teens.

A Seattle school district filed a lawsuit against social media companies in an effort to combat student mental health concerns, the Associated Press reported.

Seattle Public Schools is coming after the companies that have given rise to several popular apps — including TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and Snapchat — saying students are suffering from mental health crises as a result of their usage, according to the AP. 

“Defendants have successfully 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,” the complaint said, according to the AP. It goes on to say content on the apps are “too often harmful and exploitive.”

The suit, filed on Friday in the US District Court, comes more than a year after Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen accused the company of knowingly causing harm to teens but choosing to prioritize its profits instead. Haugen blames Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg for declining to create solutions — such as changing the algorithm — to address divisiveness and harm caused to its users.

SPS says in the suit that students in the district have reported a 30% average increase in feeling “so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row” between the 10-year span of 2009 and 2019. Social media use can be tied to depression, decreased self-esteem, and feelings of loneliness in teenagers and has given rise to the phenomenon of cyberbullying, Tausi Insider previously reported.

The complaint aims to get around Section 230, a controversial internet law that prevents tech companies from being held liable for words that users may put on their platforms. The law offers Good Samaritan protections for service providers, so long as they make a “good faith” effort to moderate content and consistently make efforts to remove federally unprotected content such as violations of copyright laws or SESTA and FOSTA regulations.

“Plaintiff is not alleging Defendants are liable for what third-parties have said on Defendants’ platforms but, rather, for Defendants’ own conduct,” the lawsuit said, per AP’s report. “Defendants affirmatively recommend and promote harmful content to youth, such as pro-anorexia and eating disorder content.”

By focusing on the conduct of the companies rather than the content made by their users, the lawsuit, which the AP referred to as “novel,” appears to maneuver around Section 230’s legal protections. 

It’s unclear if another US school district has taken similar measures, but hundreds of families have sought legal action against social media companies over the mental health of young users, CBS News reported.

“While the King County Council recently allocated additional resources for school-based services, taxpayers should not bear the burden for the mental health crisis social media companies have created, as explained in the complaint,” the school district said in a news release. “This lawsuit aims to hold these companies accountable for their actions and set youth mental health trends back on the right trajectory.”

Seattle Public Schools, Meta, Snapchat, TikTok, and Google did not immediately respond to Tausi Insider’s requests for comment. Keller Rohrback declined to provide further comment.

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