The Greece Board of Education voted Tuesday to join a nationwide lawsuit against TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat.
The suit alleges the social media companies have knowingly contributed to a mental health crisis among their students and forced them to divert resources to address it.
They join hundreds of school districts across the nation that have pursued litigation against the platforms this year, including Hilton locally.
Seattle Public Schools was the first to do so in January and more than 600 others across the country have signed on, according to plaintiffs’ attorneys.
The districts are being represented on a contingency basis. That means there is no cost to them unless they win money from the social media companies.
“We will not sit by and allow companies to put profits before student safety and emotional wellness,” School Board President Sean McCabe said. “We teach our students to speak up when they see wrongdoing, and tonight, we are following that example.”
Board members Mark Buonaugurio and Megan Ferra voted against the resolution to join the lawsuit.
“These are issues that ultimately I think become parental oversight issues,” Buonaugurio said. “I think in many ways our own state department of education has infringed upon parental rights, and I see that as a more serious concern.”
Districts say social media contributes to mental health crisis
Similar lawsuits have been filed in federal court across the country. It is not yet clear which specific litigation Greece will join.
One such complaint, filed by Mesa Public Schools in Arizona in January, alleges the social media companies created a mental health crisis in school communities, hurting their ability to fulfill their educational mission.
The complaint alleges that the social media companies have intentionally designed their platforms to maximize the time users — particularly youth — spend on them. They’ve done so by exploiting the neurophysiology of the brain’s reward systems, despite knowing that social media harms young people, according to the complaint.
Students who experience 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,” the complaint says.
Read the document: Mesa Public Schools’ lawsuit against social media companies
Mesa Public Schools’ complaint states that the number of youths using social media platforms has increased significantly since 2008, and during that time, youth mental health across the country has worsened. It points to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data that show that from 2009 to 2019, the rate of high school students who reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40%, and that between 2007 and 2018, suicide rates among people ages 10 to 24 in the U.S. increased by 57%.
The complaint cites a 2022 Pew Research Center study that found over half of teens say it would be hard to give up social media and nearly 20% of teens use YouTube “almost constantly.” That number is 16% for TikTok, 15% for Snapchat, 10% for Instagram and 2% for Facebook, the study found.
The complaint also cites a number of studies that suggest a link between social media use and negative effects on teenagers. These include “encouraging unhealthy social comparison,” causing a rise in cyberbullying, contributing to sleep deprivation and increasing the likelihood of disordered eating.
Districts using legal strategy from opioid, tobacco, e-cigarette cases
The school districts’ claims are being brought under public nuisance law.
It’s a centuries-old doctrine that came out of medieval England to solve problems impacting public welfare, like blocked waterways and roadways, said Leslie Kendrick, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law. Over time, it’s been used by states — which have individual public nuisance laws — to pursue litigation against defendants that have allegedly interfered with a public right, which typically includes public health, public safety and access to public spaces, she said.
Public nuisance doctrine, which is “very flexible,” Kendrick said, was a backbone of state litigation against the tobacco industry in the late 1990s, which resulted in a $246 billion settlement. In more recent years, it’s been deployed in litigation over climate change and the opioid epidemic, as well as against e-cigarette and gun companies — with mixed results, she said.
Greece last year joined a lawsuit against JUUL, a vaping company, and came away with $250,000.
When courts have ruled on whether products can be considered a public nuisance — which is a debated question among legal scholars — they’ve gone in different directions in different jurisdictions, she said. In 2021, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that its public nuisance law did not extend to the “manufacturing, marketing and selling of prescription opioids,” and that manufacturing and distributing products rarely causes a violation of public right — rather, a public right refers to a public good like air, water or rights-of-way.
Still, in tobacco, opioid and e-cigarette cases across the nation, public nuisance doctrine has “had a big impact with respect to settlements, kind of independent of how well it has fared in the courtroom,” Kendrick said.
Social media companies say they’ve taken measures to protect teens
Google, which owns YouTube, denied the complaints’ allegations in an emailed statement from spokesperson José Castañeda.
“Protecting kids across our platforms has always been core to our work,” Castañeda said. “In collaboration with child development specialists, we have built age-appropriate experiences for kids and families on YouTube, and provide parents with robust controls.”
Though Snap Inc. said it can’t comment on specific cases, spokesperson Pete Boogaard wrote in an emailed statement that Snapchat was “designed differently from other social media platforms.”
“Our app opens directly to a camera rather than a feed of content that encourages passive scrolling and is primarily used to help real friends communicate,” he wrote. “We aren’t an app that encourages perfection or popularity, and we vet all content before it can reach a large audience, which helps protect against the promotion and discovery of potentially harmful material.”
In an emailed statement, TikTok said its safety policies for teens include screen-time limits, parental controls and restrictions on messaging and live-streaming.
Meta, which owns Instagram and Facebook, did not respond to a request for comment.
Social media companies seeking to dismiss lawsuits
Past lawsuits against social media companies have sometimes proven unsuccessful because of a federal law commonly called Section 230, which provides immunity for internet companies with respect to third-party content generated by their users, said Joseph Tann, an attorney representing some Arizona districts in the lawsuit.
Section 230, which was enacted as part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, acts as a shield for social media companies, he said. But, he said, these lawsuits are not Section 230 cases because they are not attempts to hold social media companies accountable for content users posted on their websites.
“This lawsuit, on the other hand, is about the choices made by these social media companies,” Tann said. “I think that’s where we are pioneering.”
Kendrick, the legal scholar at the University of Virginia, said the lawsuits against social media companies are similar to the ones against e-cigarette companies, which have largely been settled, in that they both focus on “harms to youth, harms to school districts, and marketing … that allegedly appeal to youth,” she said.
But in the cases against social media companies, Section 230 could interfere, as well as issues of free speech. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that suits between private parties cannot violate the First Amendment, and the social media companies claim that their products are speech — that “what they produce and how they produce it … should count as speech,” Kendrick said.
“The plaintiffs are going to have to run a gauntlet of free speech issues here that just don’t come up when you’re talking about opioids or e-cigarettes,” she said.
The social media companies have filed motions to dismiss the complaints under Section 230 and the First Amendment.