Student Well-Being

Seattle District Sues Social Media Companies Over Students’ Mental Health

By Arianna Prothero — January 09, 2023 5 min read
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Seattle Public Schools, which educates over 50,000 students, is suing the companies that own TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, and Snap, claiming that their social media platforms are a major force driving the deterioration in students’ social, emotional, and mental health.

As the primary provider of mental health services for its students, the district says it has had to shoulder the burden of this growing mental health crisis, including hiring additional personnel. The district says social media companies have designed addictive products that hook young users to keep them scrolling and swiping and it wants those companies to pay for damages and prevention education.

The district’s legal action is a bold move that echoes another recent push by several school districts to leverage the courts to collect damages from manufacturers of e-cigarettes. In those cases, districts sued to recover the costs of counseling, treatment, and prevention programs among teens and caused major disruptions to operations in some schools.

“It has become increasingly clear that many children are burdened by mental health challenges,” says Seattle schools superintendent Brent Jones in a statement. “Our students—and young people everywhere—face unprecedented learning and life struggles that are amplified by the negative impacts of increased screen time, unfiltered content, and potentially addictive properties of social media. We are confident and hopeful that this lawsuit is the first step toward reversing this trend for our students, children throughout Washington state, and the entire country.”

Snap, which owns Snapchat, and Alphabet, which owns Google and YouTube, are both named as defendants in the lawsuit. The companies told the Associated Press that they have taken many steps to protect children and teens on their platforms.
Meta, which owns Facebook and is another defendant, told Reuters that it has developed multiple tools to support teens.
Education Week reached out to TikTok, whose parent company ByteDance is named in the lawsuit, but did not immediately receive a response.
Social media companies have been under increasing scrutiny lately for the data they collect and the effects their products and services have on people’s mental health. Facebook was the focus of intense criticism in 2021 when a whistle blower alleged that the company had done extensive research into how its platforms, such as Instagram, negatively affect kids’ mental health but failed to take any meaningful action to address the issue.

The time teens and adolescents spent on social media exploded during the pandemic, according to a 2022 report by Common Sense Media. Social media use among kids between the ages of 8 and 18 increased by 17 percent between 2019 and 2021, and amounts to a total of about five and a half hours a day for kids ages 8-12 and a little over eight and a half hours a day for teens.

But while social media use has been linked to anxiety and depression, among other psychological ailments, there are a lot of other factors contributing to the sorry state of kids’ mental health at the moment, said Kelly Vailancourt Strobach, the director of policy and advocacy for the National Association of School Psychologists, or NASP. For example, she said, the pandemic and remote learning was hard on many kids’ mental well-being.

“It’s hard to tease out one reason why our kids’ mental health is suffering,” she said. “There is decreased access to mental health providers in the school and in the community. … For the last several years there’s been racial unrest and there’s been economic unrest.”

Social media, and even its use in school, can have benefits, said Jeffrey Carpenter, a professor of education at Elon University who studies social media in education. It’s a venue for adolescents and teens to connect with new communities and perspectives and a source of informal learning about topics that students are not taught in school.

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All seeing eyes watching a boy on his laptop as he sits at the top of a giant staircase that resembles the Facebook thumbs up icon.
Illustration by Gina Tomko/Education Week and Getty

Social media is not going away, he said, so it’s important that schools teach students how to use it responsibly.

“At the same time, it’s a lot to ask schools to be in charge of fixing or preventing all of the real problems wrought by social media,” Carpenter said in an email to Education Week. “The social media companies need more regulation and accountability, but in the absence of signs that such regulation and accountability is forthcoming, maybe a school district trying something like this lawsuit is not a bad thing.”

The problem doesn’t begin or end with social media

Whether Seattle Public Schools remains the only district to take such legal action against social media companies or other districts decide to pile on remains to be seen. In the case of vaping products and their promotion to kids, hundreds of school districts eventually filed lawsuits against e-cigarette manufacturers.

But if this lawsuit is only the tip of the litigation iceberg, and other school districts are considering taking similar legal action, they should examine how their other social media and tech use is affecting students, say experts.

Social media isn’t the only tech-related issue in schools worrying mental health professionals, said Strobach. There are also concerns about the effects that rising levels of technology use and screen time in general will have on children’s well-being. That’s something that hasn’t yet had a lot of research, said Strobach.

Still other experts in social media, technology, and student well-being worry that that not enough attention is being paid to the rise in overall screen use and the risk to data privacy.

“It’s very easy to imagine a situation where a school district could engage in a high-profile criticism of one kind of software but not pay attention to what they’re using in the classroom and how that could be harmful to students in less high profile ways than mental health,” said Spencer Greenhalgh, an assistant professor of information, communication, and technology in the School of Information Science at the University of Kentucky. “There are a lot of issues of student surveillance that are going on right now.”

How schools and districts use social media can also cause students harm, said Joshua Rosenberg, an assistant professor of STEM education at the University of Tennessee.

“Adolescents are not the only ones using social media in such a way that might have downsides,” he said. “My colleagues and I looked into how schools and school districts use the social media platform Facebook, finding that educational institutions share student photos and names in such a way that may compromise students’ privacy at a large scale.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 2023 edition of Education Week as Seattle District Sues Social Media Companies Over Students’ Mental Health


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