School lawsuits over social media harm face a tough legal road

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SEATTLE (TBEN) — Like the tobacco, oil, firearms, opioid and vaping industries before them, the major U.S. social media companies are now facing lawsuits filed by public entities seeking to hold them accountable for a massive social problem — in their case: the mental health crisis among young people.

But the new lawsuits — one by the Seattle public school district last week, with a second filed by a suburban district on Monday and almost certainly more — are headed for an uncertain legal path.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments next month about the extent to which federal law protects the tech industry from such claims when social media algorithms push potentially harmful content.

Even if the Supreme Court were to pave the way for lawsuits like Seattle’s, the district would face a formidable challenge in proving industry accountability.

And the tech industry insists that social media’s effects on teen mental health differ in many ways from, say, big pharma’s role in driving opioid addiction.

“The underlying argument is that the tech industry is responsible for the emotional state of teens because they’ve made recommendations about content that has done emotional damage,” said Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel of the tech industry association NetChoice. “It would be absurd to sue Barnes & Noble because an employee recommended a book that caused emotional damage or made a teenager feel bad. But that is exactly what this lawsuit does.”

Seattle Public Schools on Friday sued the tech giants behind TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat, alleging they caused public nuisance by targeting their products at children. The Kent School District south of Seattle followed Monday.

The districts blame the corporations for worsening mental health and behavioral disorders, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders and cyberbullying; making it more difficult to train students; and forcing schools to take steps such as hiring additional mental health professionals, developing lesson plans on the effects of social media, and providing additional training to teachers.

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“Our students — and young people around the world — are facing unprecedented learning and life struggles exacerbated by the negative impacts of increased screen time, unfiltered content and the potentially addictive nature of social media,” Seattle Superintendent Brent Jones said in a statement Tuesday. by email. “We are confident and hope that this lawsuit is an important step toward reversing this trend for our students.”

Federal law — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 — helps protect online businesses from liability arising from what outside users post on their platforms. But the lawsuits argue that the provision, which predates all social media platforms, fails to protect the tech giants’ behavior in this case, with their own algorithms promoting malicious content.

That’s also the issue in Gonzalez v. Google, YouTube’s parent company, which will be contested in the Supreme Court on Feb. 21. In that case, the family of an American woman killed in a 2015 attack by the Islamic State in Paris alleges that YouTube’s algorithms contributed to the terror group’s recruitment.

If the Supreme Court ruling makes it clear that tech companies can be held liable in such cases, the school districts will still have to prove that social media was indeed to blame. According to the Seattle lawsuit, from 2009 to 2019, there was an average 30% increase in the number of students who reported feeling “so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row” that they stopped doing a number of typical activities.

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But Szabo pointed out that Seattle’s graduation rates have been rising since 2019, at a time when many kids depended on social media to keep in touch with their friends during the pandemic. If social media really was that detrimental to the district’s educational efforts, the graduation rate wouldn’t go up, he suggested.

“The complaint only focuses on how social media harms children, and there may be clues to that,” said Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law in Silicon Valley. “But there is also a lot of evidence that teens and other children benefit from social media. What we don’t know is what the emergency number would look like without social media. It is possible that the emergency rate would be higher, not lower.”

The companies have insisted that they take the safety of their users, especially children, seriously, and have introduced tools to make it easier for parents to know who their children are contacting; made mental health resources, including the new 988 crisis hotline, more prominent; and improved age verification and screen time limits.

“We automatically set teens’ accounts to private when they join Instagram, and we send them notifications to take regular breaks,” Anitigone Davis, Meta’s global head of safety, said in an emailed statement. “We don’t allow content that promotes suicide, self-harm or eating disorders, and of the content we remove or take action on, we identify more than 99% of it before it is reported to us.”

Even if some students benefit from social media, that doesn’t lessen the serious harm to many others, says Josh Golin, executive director of Fairplay for Kids, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting children from commercialization and marketing.

“The mental health cost to students, the amount of time schools have to spend monitoring and responding to social media drama, is exorbitant,” Golin said. “It is ridiculous that schools are responsible for the harm these social media platforms are doing to young people. No one sees the kind of cumulative effects that social media causes to the extent that school districts do.

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Both cases were filed in the U.S. District Court in Seattle, but they are based on the state’s public nuisance law — a broad, vaguely defined legal concept whose origins date back at least to 13th-century England. In Washington, public nuisance is defined in part as “any tort or failure to perform a duty” that “will irritate, injure, or endanger the safety, health, comfort, or tranquility of a substantial number of persons” .

Most famously, public nuisance claims helped lead the tobacco industry to a 25-year, $246 billion settlement with the states in 1998. hold oil companies responsible for climate change, the gun industry for gun violence, the pharmaceutical industry for the opioid crisis, and vaping companies like Juul for teen vaping.

Many of those lawsuits are still pending. Juul Labs last month agreed to settle thousands of lawsuits — including 1,400 from school districts, cities and counties — for a reported $1.2 billion.

Such lawsuits have the potential to spark massive change, but it also raises questions about the appropriateness of addressing major social issues in court rather than through the legislative process.

Jolina Cuaresma, senior advisor for privacy and technology policy at Common Sense Media, which aims to make media safer for kids, said she was thrilled that a school district filed a public nuisance claim against the tech companies.

“People have grown tired of waiting for Congress to do something,” she said.