Seattle Public Schools sues social media companies for exploiting youth, seeks compensation for damages

Seattle Public Schools (SPS) sued several social media companies on Friday, including Facebook, Instagram, Google, and YouTube, seeking damages for harm done to youth.

In the suit, SPS accuses social media companies of exploiting “the psychology and neurophysiology of their users.”

“These techniques are both particularly effective and harmful to the youth audience Defendants have intentionally cultivated, creating a mental health crisis among America’s youth,” the suit argues.

The suit comes just months after SPS was projected to face $100 million in deficits over the next few years after a teachers’ strike in September led to an agreement increasing expenditures by $200 million for three years.

SPS’s 90-page suit alleges social media is responsible for the disturbing rise of youth mental health issues and that companies allowed harmful practices to continue despite knowing their deleterious effects.

The claim echoes similar complaints leveled against school districts and teachers’ unions which fought to keep schools closed during the pandemic, in spite of mounting evidence that it harmed academic performance and mental health. 

Social media gained undeniable popularity among teens during the past decade, the Pew Research Center reports, with YouTube alone being used by 95% of youth. 

  

Another survey reports that 32% of children aged 7-9 and almost half of children aged 10-12 also use social media.  

Social media can negatively affect youth by disrupting sleep patterns and exposing youth to bullying and negative peer pressure, an article from the Mayo Clinic argues. Other experts link social media to depression, anxiety, body dysmorphia and suicidal behavior.  

Despite the clear risks involved, 13-18-year-olds use social media for an average of nine hours a day, and Tweens (ages 8-12) spend 6 hours a day, Common Sense Media reported. Time spent does not include any use for homework. 

The Pew Research Center confirms those trends as most teens use some form of social media daily if not “almost constantly.”  

“Defendants view youth, adolescent, and even-preadolescent users as one of their most valuable commodities as an audience for their advertisements,” the school’s lawsuit says.  

Data from the American Psychological Association also suggest that youth are uniquely susceptible to the harms of social media, since there has been no corresponding mental health crisis among adults.  

The plaintiff’s allegation echoes the ground-breaking documentary, The Social Dilemma, which explains in detail how social media companies exploit their own users.  

“There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software,” says statistician Edward Tufte in the documentary. 

Not only does social media negatively impact mental health, but it also harms students’ educational experience. 

“Students experiencing anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues perform worse in school, are less likely to attend school, more likely to engage in substance use, and to act out, all of which directly affects Seattle Public School’s ability to fulfill its educational mission,” SPS claims. 

It also argues the defendants are liable for the harm their platforms have caused youth and the financial burdens caused by the corresponding mental health crisis.  

SPS was allegedly burdened by the costs of hiring additional personnel, developing additional resources, increasing training for teacher and staff, educating students about the dangers of social media, addressing property damage resulting from students’ destructive behaviors, and increasing disciplinary services. 

The plaintiff is suing for damages and has requested a jury trial.