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Tech giants sued over youth mental health crisis

Seattle Schools blames social media like Facebook, YouTube and TikTok for exploiting young brains and feeding the mental health crisis.
By admin
Jan 10, 2023, 1:17 PM

The lawsuits against big tech for harming young people are piling up. This time, a lawsuit alleges social media platforms from Meta, Google, Instagram, Snap, TikTok and others “exploits kids’ psychology and neuropsychology to make them spend more time on the harmful platforms.” These platforms are making the mental health crisis among kids worse, according to the suit.

Seattle School District No. 1 filed the complaint (Case 2:23-cv-00032) on Jan. 6 in US District Court for the Western District of Washington in Seattle and named Meta, Facebook, Siculus, Snap, TikTok, ByteDance, Alphabet, Google and YouTube as defendants.

Not only have these social media platforms grown their user bases into the billions, but they’ve also increased their frequency of use. “Defendants’ growth is a product of choices they made to design and operate their platforms in ways that exploit the psychology and neurophysiology of their users into spending more and more time on their platforms,” the complaint alleges.

In fact, Seattle Schools claims the tech giants designed their platforms to manipulate the brain’s reward center, noting kids’ brains are particularly vulnerable to such neuro-mechanisms. The suit contends, “The Meta platforms are designed to maximize user engagement, using features that exploit the natural human desire for social interaction and the neurophysiology of the brain’s reward systems to keep users endlessly scrolling, posting, ‘liking,’ commenting, and counting the number of ‘likes’ and comments to their own posts.”

The 91-page lawsuit dives deep into the ways each platform is designed and operated to keep kids coming back for more and more use and rewards. It also references and details various published research on the neural impact of social media.

Youth mental health crisis growing

The plaintiffs cited information showing the sharp increase of children struggling with mental health issues between 2010 and 2018—a crisis then accelerated by the pandemic—and referenced declarations of a national emergency from American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association. They also noted an advisory from the US Surgeon General to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis, as well as a call from the White House to “hold social media platforms accountable for the national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit.”

Seattle Schools, like other districts around the country, provides mental health services to students, including screening and referrals to mental health specialists. In the complaint, the district claimed the situation is having a direct impact on student performance and the school’s operations and success.

“Students experiencing anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues perform worse in school, are less likely to attend school, more likely to engage in substance use, and to act out, all of which directly affects Seattle Public Schools’ ability to fulfill its educational mission,” the suit says.

No shield, no quarter

Anticipating the defendants might try to use section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA, 47 U.S.C. 230(c)(1))—a law meant to protect children from online pornography—as a shield for their conduct, the plaintiffs argued the excepted provision does not provide immunity to social media. The US Supreme Court previously ruled this provision in the CDA infringed on First Amendment rights and was unnecessarily broad despite the need for government to protect children. This led to Section 203, which provides protection for tech companies from lawsuits over content published by third parties. Thus, the immunity is for platform users, not the tech giants designing and operating them, the plaintiff argues.

Alleging the defendants violate The Washington Public Nuisance Law, the plaintiff is asking the court for relief, including an order that the companies stop their public nuisance behavior and any action contributing to such public nuisance. Further, the lawsuit seeks relief funding for prevention education and treatment for excessive and harmful social media use, as well as actual and compensatory damages, and the maximum statutory damages allowed by law.

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