In January, Seattle Public Schools sued four social media giants—TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook—for their alleged role in worsening students’ mental health. Since then, it’s become a movement that is only gaining more and more traction among school districts. But will it pay off?
Two South Carolina school districts—Fort Mill Schools and the Clover School District—are among the latest to take aim at social media companies for their negative impact on students. The lawsuit targets Meta (which owns Facebook and Instagram), TikTok, Snapchat and Google, which owns YouTube.
“We’re hopeful that this will maybe help some of these companies put in some extra safeguards for kids,” Chief Communication Officer of Fort Mill Schools Joe Burke told WCNC. “We heard last night that a lot of kids on this platform are in the 8 to 12 range which shouldn’t even be on those platforms.”
Also this week, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a new mental health advisory addressing social media use and its effects on youth mental health.
“We are in the middle of a national youth mental health crisis, and I am concerned that social media is an important driver of that crisis—one that we must urgently address,” Murthy said in a statement.
While social media poses a clear and immediate threat to students, as the headlines suggest, do school districts stand a chance in their fight to reduce the risk?
Dr. Aaron Saiger, professor of law at Fordham University, says their chances may be slim.
“I am not optimistic about the success of these lawsuits,” he says. “Many, many products have adverse effects on children that create costs for schools. These costs include, but are not limited to, mental health problems for students. Without making any claims about relative magnitude, products that come immediately to mind include television shows, phones, sugary foods, sneakers and music. All of these products arguably harm children but also bring value—which includes enjoyment—to their users.”
He adds that we’ve seen these heightened states of fear and “moral panic” before surrounding new behaviors and technologies that young children take a liking to.
“TV shows, rock music and video games have all been viewed by adults as a scourge that needed to be stopped lest they destroy children and childhood,” he says. “In earlier periods, these conflicts played out over genres like films and even novels. This is not to deny that new kinds of entertainment often do create new problems. They do. But they also create value that hidebound adults cannot—or do not want—to see.”
That being said, he doesn’t think the lawsuits are “preposterous.” If a company produces a potentially harmful product and doesn’t take measures to mitigate the negative effects it has on its audience, they’re responsible for it.
“A company is liable for placing a dangerous product on the market if it failed to take reasonable steps to mitigate the danger its products pose, or if its product is so ‘inherently’ dangerous that the dangers vastly outweigh whatever compensating value it offers,” he explains. “My lay understanding of social media is that it is not the latter; social media provides an enormous value to many people, including children.”
“I do not know whether there are ways to mitigate the bad effects of social media on children that would be realistically achievable and reasonably effective,” he adds. “For example, could companies actually enforce minimum age requirements, and would that help mental health? If there are such steps, social media companies would be wise to take them. But such steps, to be reasonably effective in this context, cannot destroy the value of the product.”
Another complex element is the idea that students are seemingly addicted to social media, something that Murthy points out in his advisory.
“Small studies have shown that people with frequent and problematic use can experience changes in brain structure similar to changes seen in individuals with substance use or gambling addictions,” the advisory reads.
Another national survey revealed that one-third of girls ages 11-15 reported feeling “addicted” to a social media platform. But according to Saiger, it’s a loaded term in this context.
“It comes from medicine and implies a physical dependency,” he says. “Courts might well hold that it is per se unreasonable to try purposely to ‘addict’ children. But companies are entitled to design products that consumers enjoy using and therefore want to use more of.”
But the lawsuits clearly put pressure on social media companies, he notes. As with the general surgeon’s advisory, they stir public conversation and potential regulatory intervention, regardless of whether the lawsuits are dropped or resolved in favor of the company.
“They might also motivate state and federal regulators to look into the issue,” he says. “The companies might reasonably look for proactive measures that would satisfy some of the districts’ complaints in order to head off adverse regulatory action. This could look like a win to the districts.”