Law & Courts

School District Lawsuits Against Social Media Companies Are Piling Up

By Arianna Prothero — January 31, 2024 7 min read
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More than 200 school districts have now sued the major social media companies over the youth mental health crisis.

What started as a single lawsuit filed by the Seattle public schools one year ago has morphed into an all-out offensive against the social media platforms that adolescents spend multiple hours a day on.

It is still the early stages of this legal saga, but experts say it could prove to be highly consequential for K-12 education—win, lose, or settle.

“Most of these [lawsuits] are as much about legal success as they are about shaping issues and winning in the court of public opinion,” said Chris Thomas, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Florida. “That is part of the strategy around the lawsuits, even if they have tough hills to climb legally.”

The plaintiffs represent a diverse swath of districts from California to Pennsylvania, united in what they say is a mental health crisis largely driven by social media.

In a nutshell, the lawsuits allege that social media companies have designed highly addictive products that are harmful to mental health and that they have marketed them to youth who are in a developmental stage that makes them uniquely susceptible to manipulation. Those practices, critics of social media companies argue, come at a time when school districts have been forced to devote substantial resources to addressing students’ deteriorating mental health. Many of the lawsuits are asking for money and for social media companies to change their practices—such as the design of their algorithms.

Social media is making students more anxious and depressed, and causing them to act out, said Nancy Magee, the San Mateo County Superintendent of Schools in California, which oversees 23 local school districts south of San Francisco. It’s been a significant drain on school resources, Magee said.

The San Mateo County School Board filed a lawsuit against the companies that own YouTube, Snapchat, and TikTok in March 2023.

Assessing the impact on schools

San Mateo schools have had to hire more staff and provide special training in addition to just having to devote more time during the school day to addressing behavioral problems.

“It can manifest as a student who is sleeping in class a lot—you may find that the kid is gaming all night along and in an addictive pattern for gaming—to conflicts that happen among students because there is bullying going on in social media platforms,” she said.

School property has also been damaged as a result of social media challenges.

Magee said almost every parent of a teen she speaks with has said that they are worried about their children’s social media use, but they struggle to control it.

“Oftentimes, the answer to challenges in the world is education, and we do need to be investing more in the education of kids in their media literacy and critical thinking skills and monitoring their own mental health,” she said. “But I think the social media companies should have some accountability in that.”

Social media companies respond to criticism

There are other issues weighing down students’ mental health, Magee and others point out. But she sees social media as a constant in the complex equation of factors that affect an adolescent’s mental well-being. Take climate change and gun violence, Magee said: two things that cause students a lot of anxiety on their own—but even more so when students are inundated with information on these topics through social media apps that may be actively serving students more information on the very things that worry them in order to keep them on the platforms longer.

For their part, social media companies say they have been diligent in making their platforms safe for teens.

“Providing young people with a safer, healthier experience has always been core to our work,” said José Castañeda, a spokesperson for Google, in a statement to Education Week. “In collaboration with youth, mental health and parenting experts, we built services and policies to provide young people with age-appropriate experiences, and parents with robust controls. The allegations in these complaints are simply not true.”

Google, which owns YouTube; Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram; ByteDance, which owns TikTok; and Snap, which owns Snapchat, are the four main companies targeted in the lawsuits.

“Snapchat was intentionally designed to be different from traditional social media, with a focus on helping Snapchatters communicate with their close friends,” a spokesperson for Snap said in a statement. “Snapchat opens directly to a camera—rather than a feed of content that encourages passive scrolling—and has no traditional public likes or comments. While we will always have more work to do, we feel good about the role Snapchat plays in helping close friends feel connected, happy, and prepared as they face the many challenges of adolescence.”

During a Jan. 31 U.S. Senate hearing about harmful content on social media, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized directly to parents and family members of children who had suffered abuse on social media, telling them that “no one should have to go through the things that your families have suffered.”

Multi-district lawsuit similar to previous legal action against e-cigarette makers

The majority of district lawsuits have been combined into one multi-district lawsuit along with individuals who had separately sued the major social media companies. That lawsuit has just entered the discovery phase.

“Teachers and school administrators have been at the front lines of addressing this crisis and are overburdened by the negative effects on their students—from how it has affected mental health to behavior in the classroom,” said Lexi Hazam, an attorney with Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein and co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the consolidated lawsuit. “Funds meant for educational purposes have been reallocated to address the misconduct of the corporations behind Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, YouTube, and Facebook. Social media companies should be held accountable and provide support to schools for the harms their products cause.”

If this all sounds familiar, it’s because four years ago, nearly a hundred school districts were using a similar argument against the manufacturers of e-cigarettes, saying the chaos their products caused amounted to a public nuisance.

Such complaints basically claim that a nuisance that interferes with property or a person’s ability to comfortably enjoy their life is affecting an entire community, said Thomas from the University of Florida. They’re generally brought by the state, not school districts, such as in litigation against tobacco companies in the 1990s and more recently against pharmaceutical companies over harms caused by the opioid epidemic, he added.

In the case of e-cigarettes, schools were expending resources on policing e-cigarette use, even installing vapor sensors in bathrooms.

“Typically, when we see these public nuisance complaints, they are an interesting marriage of the executive using the judiciary to approach regulatory change,” he said. “They often come about when there is inadequate attention from the legislature or other governing bodies.”

Whether the public nuisance argument will carry school districts to a win in court is difficult to say. The class action lawsuit against Juul that the majority of school districts were part of was settled in December 2022, for reportedly between $1.2 and $1.7 billion.

Thomas thinks the school districts suing social media companies have a tough legal case to make in establishing that they are the right entities to sue and that there is a direct causal link between social media and the youth mental health crisis.

But that’s only one way to measure success, he said. If state and federal lawmakers step in and start regulating social media companies more heavily, or if social media companies change their practices more dramatically, that will go a long way toward helping schools.

“I think the ultimate goal is to improve our conversations around student health and well-being,” he said. “If the lawsuits are creating public awareness, that constitutes a win.”

Since the Seattle school district’s first lawsuit was filed, 41 states plus the District of Columbia have sued Meta, saying the company has harmed children’s mental health.

State and federal lawmakers have also filed bills that would significantly restrict young kids’ access to social media, with the aim of improving their mental health. Arkansas and Utah have enacted such laws already—both of which have been challenged in court by NetChoice, a tech industry trade group.

California passed a law last year that would compel social media and online gaming companies to alter the design of their products to make them safer for young users, such as having the highest privacy settings be the default for children under 18. That law has also been challenged by NetChoice. A bill filed this current legislative session would require social media companies to make additional changes to their products, such as making chronological feeds—versus algorithmically generated ones—the default setting.

Magee, the superintendent of schools for San Mateo county, said she has raised her concerns over students’ social media use to state lawmakers.

“I did some testimony in Sacramento at the state capital at some Assembly hearings and implored them that you can’t leave this to schools and parents to figure this out by ourselves,” she said. “It has to be all of us working together, and that includes the social media companies.”

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