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Mobile phone app logos for, from left, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp are photographed in New York on Oct. 5, 2021.
Richard Drew, Associated Press
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The TikTok app logo appears in Tokyo on Sept. 28, 2020.
Kiichiro Sato, Associated Press
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This May 16, 2012, file photo shows a Facebook logo displayed on the screen of an iPad in New York.
James H. Collins, Associated Press
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In this June 20, 2013, file photo, a journalist makes a video of the Instagram logo at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif.
Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press
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In this October 2013 photo, Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel poses for a photo in Los Angeles.
JAE C. HONG, Associated Press
Weber School District, Davis School District and 11 other Utah school systems have joined a federal mass tort lawsuit against some of the biggest names in social media, including Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube.
They charge the social media giants with contributing to “possibly the most severe mental health crisis” American youth and teens have ever faced, as the April 12 suit reads, and seek an order forcing the firms to halt their damaging actions. The plaintiffs also seek relief to fund education and treatment programs for youth negatively impacted by social media use and other damages.
Lane Findlay, spokesperson for the Weber School District, said district officials have been monitoring and documenting mental health issues among students. They’ve seen an uptick in issues over the last decade. The Weber School District was one of 16 original plaintiffs in the suit, filed in U.S. District Court for Northern California, where many of the defendant firms are headquartered.
“The kinds of issues we’re seeing that our students are dealing with, specifically anxiety and depression, have a significant impact on school attendance, grades and participation in school activities,” Findlay said in a statement. “Moreover, the amount of time administrators spend dealing with cyberbullying is unprecedented. We believe, like the Utah Legislature, the governor and the attorney general, that the addictive algorithms social media companies use, like those named in the suit, contribute to the problems we’re seeing.”
Last March, Gov. Spencer Cox signed Senate Bill 152 into law, a measure spurred by concerns about the impact of social media on the mental health of youth and teens. S.B. 152 implements age verification restrictions on social media companies and gives parents more leeway in controlling their kids’ social media use.
The new lawsuits are another bid to address concerns about social media companies. “Any money generated from this lawsuit will go directly to schools to help better serve students with mental health needs,” Findlay said.
Aside from the Weber and Davis school districts, the Beaver, Daggett, Duchesne, Juab, Kane, Morgan, Nebo, Salt Lake, San Juan, South Sanpete and Wayne school systems are also taking part in the legal action, according to William Shinoff. He’s a lawyer with the San Diego, California-based Frantz Law Group, which is representing the plaintiffs.
The Davis school board voted May 2 to join in the lawsuits. So far, around 350 school systems in all from across the country are taking part, according Shinoff, including the Utah school districts. He said the total number could grow to as high as 2,000 school districts.
With mass tort lawsuits, legal teams file suits on behalf of each individual plaintiff instead of one suit covering multiple plaintiffs, a class-action lawsuit. The suits, however, are largely identical.
A Davis School District official didn’t immediately respond to a Standard-Examiner query on the lawsuit but referred to a statement by James Frantz of the Frantz Law Group after the first lawsuits were filed.
“We allege that Meta, TikTok, Snap, YouTube and other social media companies have engaged in reckless and negligent misconduct that has caused a mental health crisis among our youth,” Frantz said. “Social media companies are and have been well aware of the harm they cause. It must stop, and we will fight to hold these social media companies accountable for choosing profit over the mental health and safety of children and their families.”
Separately, the Frantz Law Group also represents the Weber, Ogden and Davis school systems, among many others across Utah and beyond, in a lawsuit against JUUL Labs that charges the vaping company with contributing to a jump in youth vaping.
The new suits against the social media companies are in the early stages and the defendant firms have not yet responded. Among the defendants are Meta Platforms, formerly called Facebook, and Snap, developer of Snapchat. Others include Instagram (owned by Meta), WhatsApp, TikTok, Google and YouTube.
Shinoff said experts can testify to the issues outlined in the social media lawsuit, which describes the mental health problems youth and teens face in stark terms. The lawsuit singles out the algorithms the social media firms use, deliberately intended to direct younger users to additional content that keeps them using the platforms. The still-developing brains of youth, the lawsuit argues, are particularly susceptible to the manipulation of such algorithms, making it hard for them to stop scrolling and pull away from their screens.
“Defendants have successfully exploited the vulnerable brains of minors, causing millions of students across the United States, including in plaintiffs’ district, to become addicted to and excessively using defendants’ social media platforms,” the lawsuit reads. “Furthermore, the content defendants direct to minors is many times harmful and exploitive (e.g., instigating vandalism, eating disorders, or encouraging self-harm).”
The upshot of it all, the suit says, is an uptick in youth “struggling with anxiety, depression, thoughts of self-harm and suicidal ideation.” In turn, that impacts the performance of kids in school, can lead to substance abuse and stresses the resources of schools as they try to help students address the varied issues.
“The major social media platforms including Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube have spent millions to develop and market their products to minors, keeping them coming back for more and significantly contributing to this mental health crisis,” the lawsuit reads.
The issue is a big concern for Weber school board members, and the lawsuit, Findlay said, is “an effort to hold these companies accountable for their role in the mental health problems of students.”