The Seattle city school district filed a novel lawsuit blaming Big Tech for poisoning youth with social media addiction, saying the schools can’t fulfil their educational mission while students are suffering from anxiety, depression and other psychological troubles.
Alphabet Inc., Meta Platforms Inc., Snap Inc. and ByteDance Ltd., the owner of TikTok, are responsible for hooking young people on their platforms and creating a mental health crisis, according to the complaint filed late Friday in Seattle federal court. The district includes more than 100 schools and serves about 50,000 children.
The suit appears to be the first of its kind in the US brought by a school district, following similar claims filed last year by scores of families, including more than a dozen blaming the tech companies for suicides.
The idea that social media companies shoulder responsibility for the potential damage their products cause to young people came to the fore late in 2021 when former Meta employee Frances Haugen revealed documents about its internal operations. Among Haugen’s allegations was a claim that the company was knowingly preying on vulnerable young people to boost profits. Congress held hearings and some state attorneys general launched investigations.
The companies’ front line of defence is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the 1996 federal statute giving internet platforms broad immunity from claims over harmful content posted by users. The law has so effectively shielded them from legal claims that voices on both the political left and right have called for its reform.
“We have invested heavily in creating safe experiences for children across our platforms and have introduced strong protections and dedicated features to prioritise their well being,” Google spokesman Jose Castaneda said in an email. “For example, through Family Link, we provide parents with the ability to set reminders, limit screen time and block specific types of content on supervised devices.”
Meta declined to comment. Representatives of Snap and TikTok didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. The companies have previously said they’re working to protect their youngest users, including by offering resources on mental health topics and improving safeguards to stop the spread of harmful content.
And in a further recent example of pushback against how tech developments are encroaching on children’s lives, the New York City public school system - the largest in the US - this week banned its students from accessing the ChatGPT artificial intelligence programme to generate text.
In Friday’s suit, Seattle School District No. 1 is asking a judge to find that the companies have created a public nuisance and to order remedies including monetary damages and funding to prevent and treat excessive use of social media.
The district said it has seen a dramatic increase in suicides and emergency room mental health visits. It cited President Joe Biden’s 2022 State of the Union address in which he implored all to “hold social media platforms accountable for the national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit.”
“Seattle School District No. 1 brings this action to do just that,” according to the complaint. “Youth in plaintiff’s community are experiencing the same mental health crisis observed nationally.”
The case is Seattle School District No. 1 v. Meta Platforms Inc., 23-cv-00032, US District Court, Western District of Washington (Seattle).