By Arianna Prothero for EducationWeek
A growing number of school districts are following the lead of the Seattle public schools and suing major social media companies over the deteriorating mental health of their students.
Their argument: that these companies have designed highly addictive apps and marketed their products to kids who are uniquely susceptible to manipulation. School districts, meanwhile, have been left to deal with the fallout from the harm those apps are doing to students’ mental health, the lawsuits argue.
While legal experts are skeptical that these lawsuits will succeed in the court of law, in the court of public opinion, they may have more success.
“Essentially, schools are saying, ‘Look at what’s happening to our youth, and you, the social media companies, are responsible’,” said Robert Hachiya, a Kansas State University education professor and a former school administrator who is an expert in education law. “There’s no question there is a problem. The issue is, how can social media companies be assigned some kind of liability for this problem?”
It’s not really about the money, he said, “It’s about getting them to change their practices.”
The Seattle district broke new legal ground when it filed a lawsuit in January against the major social media companies: ByteDance (which owns TikTok), Google (which owns YouTube), Meta (which owns Facebook and Instagram), Snap (which owns Snapchat), and Twitter.
King County, where the Seattle school district is located, has seen an increase in suicides, attempted suicides, and mental-health-related emergency room visits among school-age kids, according to the complaint. The number of students in the school system saying they feel “so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that they stopped doing some usual activities” went up 30 percent in the decade since 2009, which is about the time the use of smartphones to access social media began to take off for teens and young adults.
Students who are suffering from anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges do worse in school and are more likely to act out in class or skip it altogether, which impacts the ability of schools to fulfill their mission, the Seattle lawsuit argues. Rising mental health problems among students also put more pressure on school resources, forcing districts to divert money away from academics and toward hiring mental health professionals and staff who are trained to identify and work with children in crisis.
The lawsuit asks for financial compensation for the school district and for the courts to declare the practices of social media companies a public nuisance under Washington state law.
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