Seattle public schools have filed a lawsuit against several of the largest social media companies, accusing them of being responsible for “a mental health crisis among America’s youth.”
The school system, in a 91-page complaint filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Washington state, says the companies behind TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat have cultivated and exploited the addictive nature of the platforms, which has led to a rising number of kids affected with anxiety and depression, as well as a growing number who consider or inflict self-harm.
“Defendants have successfully exploited the vulnerable brains of youth, hooking tens of millions of students across the country into positive feedback loops of excessive use and abuse of Defendants’ social media platforms,” the suit alleges. “Defendants’ misconduct has been a substantial factor in causing a youth mental health crisis, which has been marked by higher and higher proportions of youth struggling with anxiety, depression, thoughts of self-harm, and suicidal ideation.”
The lawsuit notes that between 2009 and 2019, the school district saw an average 30% increase in the number of students who reported feeling “so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that [they] stopped doing some usual activities.”
Suicide, it adds, is now the second leading cause of death for youths. The number of children in eighth grade who have considered it jumped from 15% to 20% between 2010 and 2018. For 10th graders, it was an increase from 18% to 23%, and 12th graders soared from 14% to 22%.
While Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act shields online platforms from being responsible for content posted by third parties, the lawsuit argues social media companies are not similarly protected, as they distribute and promote content “in a way that causes harm.”
“As of the 2022–23 school year, Plaintiff employs 133 school counselors, 21 social workers, 62 psychologists, and 87 nurses,” the suit say. “Plaintiff also partners with 29 King County–based health centers and contracts with 17 community agencies to offer mental health support to its students. But even with these resources, Plaintiff cannot keep up with the increased need for mental health services because of the youth mental health crisis.”
A Snap spokesperson told Fortune: “While we can’t comment on the specifics of active litigation, nothing is more important to us than the well-being of our community. Snapchat was designed to help people communicate with their real friends, without some of the public pressure and social comparison features of traditional social media platforms, and intentionally makes it hard for strangers to contact young people. We also work closely with many mental health organizations to provide in-app tools and resources for Snapchatters as part of our ongoing work to keep our community safe. We will continue working to make sure our platform is safe and to give Snapchatters dealing with mental health issues resources to help them deal with the challenges facing young people today.”
Meta and Tik Tok, and did not immediately respond to Fortune’s request for comment.
In a statement to Axios, however, Meta said, “We’ve developed more than 30 tools to support teens and families, including supervision tools that let parents limit the amount of time their teens spend on Instagram, and age verification technology that helps teens have age-appropriate experiences.”
A Google spokesperson told Fortune: “We have invested heavily in creating safe experiences for children across our platforms and have introduced strong protections and dedicated features to prioritize their well-being.”
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Line or visit 988lifeline.org.
Jan. 10, 2023: This story was updated with additional comment from Google