(Photo: Philippe Lopez/AFP via Getty Images)
The Marin County Education Office has sued social media companies, claiming they have a negative impact on children’s mental health.
The lawsuit, one of dozens filed nationwide by school districts and local governments, was filed on behalf of all students at Marin School. It was filed April 28 in federal court in Oakland.
The lawsuit is part of a multidisciplinary litigation involving multiple cases. Many cases, including Marin’s, are being consolidated before U.S. District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers.
The lawsuit alleges that social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, TikTok and Google’s YouTube have violated California nuisance, unfair competition, negligence and racketeering laws.
“I believe that holding entities accountable for harm done to youth – damage that can be seen and that affects schools – is necessary, primarily to limit and prevent future damage,” said John Carroll, Superintendent of Marin Schools.
Marin County and other plaintiffs are seeking “changes in the design of the defendants’ social media platforms and implementation of safeguards for young users,” said Aelish Baig, a San Francisco attorney who is representing Marin in the lawsuit.
“We are also looking for funds that can be used to alleviate the youth mental health crisis,” Baig said.
Attorney Phyllis Jones, who represents one of the main defendants, Meta Platforms Inc., the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, directed all inquiries to the company. The representatives could not be reached for comment immediately.
On Tuesday, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the US Surgeon General, issued an order advisory, warning that social media is damaging the mental health of young people.
“Children and young people who spend more than three hours a day on social media are twice as likely to experience mental health problems, including symptoms of depression and anxiety,” the advisory summary said, referring to a 2019 study. A recent study found that teens spend an average of 3.5 hours a day on social media.
Marin’s 148-page lawsuit presents a comprehensive body of research on youth mental health harm over the past decade or more.
“This dispute is important because with the advent of social media, American youth have experienced a dramatic change,” Baig said. “More and more of our youth in Marin and across the country suffer from mental and behavioral health disorders”
Baig added that teachers, health professionals and families are “watching a surge in anxiety, depression, cyberbullying, self-harm, suicide and other harm,” she said.
“More and more experts and studies are correlating excessive use of social media with these negative effects,” she added.
According to Marin’s lawsuit, the tactics used by social media companies are deliberately used to increase profits.
“There’s a reason America’s youth are ‘almost constantly’ online, and that’s that the primary measure of success for these social media giants is engagement,” according to the lawsuit. “Companies’ success requires more users to use their platforms for longer periods of time to maximize ad revenue.”
The tactic includes, the lawsuit says, “(a) the use of algorithms and endless scrolls that create harmful experiences for children and teens; and (b) using occasional variable rewards or dopamine spikes to intentionally alter users’ behavior, habit formation, and addiction.”
A Pew Research Center study found that nearly half of American teens between the ages of 13 and 17 said they were online “almost constantly”, the lawsuit said.
“Three decades ago, the most serious public health threats to teenagers in the United States were binge drinking, drunk driving, teen pregnancy and smoking,” the lawsuit states. “As education has increased, it has since declined significantly, but has been replaced by a new public health problem: a sharp increase in mental health disorders, including depression, self-harm and suicidal ideation.”
A federal court in Oakland has created a separate public website for social media disputes. It can be accessed on the homepage, cand.uacourts.gov, in the “Interested Cases” section.
It warned young people about the dangers of social media, according to Tuesday’s 19-page handbook by the U.S. Surgeon General.
A unique advisory for the country’s top health official, Dr. Vivek Murthy, called for a better understanding of the possible harm to children.
Noting that the impact of social media on teen mental health has not been fully understood and that social media can be beneficial for some users, he also wrote: “There are many indications that social media may also carry profound risks to the mental health and well-being of children and young people”.
The New York Times contributed to this report.