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As Seattle schools sue social media companies, legal experts split on potential impact

Three students stand outdoors looking down at their phones.

Seattle’s public school district filed a lawsuit against major social media companies this month, alleging their business practices have harmed the district and its students.

Maskot / Getty Images

A notable new lawsuit against social media industry leaders by the Seattle school district has left legal experts divided on how the case will unfold.

The complaint — which alleges that the school district and its students have been harmed by social media’s negative effects on youth mental health — could lead to sweeping changes in the industry, one expert said. Or, as others expect, it could fizzle out with little chance of winning in court.

Seattle Public Schools alleges that the companies — which include Meta, Google, Snapchat, and ByteDance, the company behind TikTok — designed their platforms intentionally to grow their user bases and “exploit the psychology and neurophysiology of their users into spending more and more time on their platforms,” according to a complaint filed earlier this month.

 Kent School District in Washington filed a similar complaint within days.

If the evidence and argument put forward by the districts are sound, a win could usher in a wave of similar litigation by school districts across the nation, said Derek W. Black, an education law professor at the University of South Carolina. 

“What’s on the line here is not the money,” he said. “What’s on the line is the court saying these groups are responsible and therefore they must stop this behavior. That’s what’s on the line: the mental health of the current generation and those that follow.”

Others aren’t so sure.

“It is not a winning lawsuit, and it shouldn’t be,” said Aaron Saiger, an education law professor at Fordham University.

Here’s a look at where the case stands and what legal experts anticipate the future may hold:

What the school district and social media companies are saying

Seattle’s school district has argued that social media companies are maximizing profit at the expense of the mental health of young audiences, who spend significant amounts of time on the platforms and report associating them with stress and anxiety, according to the complaint.

Meanwhile, the social media companies named in the lawsuit emphasized their own commitments to teen and child safety.

“We want teens to be safe online,” said Antigone Davis, global head of safety at Meta, noting the company has developed parental supervision tools and other privacy and safety measures on teen accounts. “We don’t allow content that promotes suicide, self-harm or eating disorders, and of the content we remove or take action on, we identify over 99% of it before it’s reported to us.”

Spokespeople for Google and Snapchat highlighted similar steps they’ve taken to enhance safety for teenagers and children, like allowing parents to impose screen time limits or monitor whom their kids are connecting with on the platform. ByteDance did not respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuit seeks a court order labeling the actions of the company a public nuisance under Washington law, a term that applies to actions that endanger a considerable number of people. It asks the court to tell the companies halt the practices noted in the suit and provide financial compensation to the district. 

How likely the case is to succeed

To Black, a school district is an unexpected plaintiff, but one he believes could have higher odds of success than individual families.

He drew comparisons to cases against the tobacco industry, which grew more successful as governments pursued lawsuits based on the harmful impact of the product on state healthcare systems. An individual might struggle to prove their negative experiences were clearly caused by the product but with broader trend data to refer to, the argument becomes more compelling, he said.

The focus on product design, rather than content on the platform, adds viability to the case, Black added.

“This isn’t just about holding the internet in general liable,” he said. “This is about specific affirmative actions that Google, YouTube, Facebook and others are taking.”

But others believe that it points to a common marketing strategy and doesn’t make a compelling case for legal liability.

“A lot of product marketers would love to addict their customers and do everything in their power to do so — that’s called product marketing,” said Eric Goldman, a technology and marketing law professor at Santa Clara University. “We don’t hold many services or products liable for addicting customers.”

Casinos, for example, aren’t held liable for gambling addictions, he said.

Saiger questioned whether the district had standing. Rather than tobacco cases, he felt it was more comparable to a school district suing a sugary food manufacturer for making children ill in their district.

“It’s a very long causation chain, and I don’t think the courts will be inclined to let the school district pursue it,” he said. “To say, ‘We’re service providers to children whose mental health is affected by thousands of things, and we picked you,’ strikes me as a very attenuated way to understand liability under the nuisance law.”

Goldman also questioned the timing of the case, noting that an ongoing lawsuit by dozens of families against social media companies has made similar arguments. That case, as well as the pending U.S. Supreme Court case Gonzalez v. Google, could have dramatic implications for the school district lawsuits, he said.

“I would assume the [school district] case is going to fail,” he said. “But the battle is taking place in the legislatures as well.” 

What the case could mean — win or lose

Regardless of outcome, the case will attract additional media attention and public scrutiny, experts said. A win could spark other lawsuits and bring changes to social media companies, while a loss might spur litigators to shift tactics in future cases.

“If the evidence that’s in the complaint is true, it is one of, if not, the most important lawsuits to be filed during my lifetime,” Black said. “Because it stretches across so many states … This case, though it would have to be replicated elsewhere, is potentially a huge turning point that is equally significant for the entire nation.”

It’s complicated to think about what remedies are possible in the case, Saiger said. He believes social media offers a public good, unlike tobacco or asbestos, for example.

“A plausible remedy in the opioid case was to take the pills off the market,” he said. “That’s not a plausible remedy, in my opinion, for social media, because it has social value.”

Though the court could intervene and seek changes to social media companies’ business practices, such as insisting against certain marketing strategies or requiring stronger age verification, Saiger said such changes seemed more likely to come from a state legislative body.

Goldman added the court is unlikely to consider the benefits of social media. 

“It’s not really the court’s job to try to balance that kind of evidence, particularly because the proponents of the benefits of social media might not be in the courtroom,” he said. “That’s what legislators are supposed to do.”

Some state legislatures have already taken steps in that direction. California lawmakers, for example, passed the Age-Appropriate Design Code Act, which imposes more stringent requirements that online services identify and protect minors on their sites.

Signed into law last fall, it faces a legal challenge from the tech trade group NetChoice, which includes major industry players like Google, TikTok, and Meta.

Still, if the school district case is able to proceed, the stakes could be enormous.

“If the plaintiffs tell their story to the judge and are successful, the consequences could be a radical reshaping of the internet,” Goldman said. “That’s a good reason for us to both be concerned about the lawsuit and to question whether or not this is the right way to solve the problem.”

What the science says about social media’s effects

As legal experts disagree about the viability of the case, the science, too, isn’t completely clear.

While research has drawn links between, say, social media use and anxiety or certain types of content and maladaptive behavior, it has not established a clear causal relationship between social media and worsening trends in youth mental health and depression, said Mitch Prinstein, the chief science officer at the American Psychological Association.

“Is social media, by itself, and just kids’ normal use of it, solely responsible for the national trend we’re seeing in youth mental health? Probably not,” he said, adding he wasn’t commenting on the legal arguments. “From a scientific perspective we can’t say that, nor do I know that we could ever say that.”

The claim becomes murkier when accounting for other variables, like economic stress, increased divisiveness across the country, and changing depictions of mental health in media and popular culture. Further muddying the waters are potential upsides associated with social media use.

“On the flipside, kids are now using tech to have their primary interaction with other peers — and we do know there’s very deep research that shows that our interpersonal relationships have a very profound effect on our risk for mental health difficulties and even our physical health,” Prinstein added. “And we are seeing that kids are reporting pretty directly that their social media experiences are making them feel more isolated and lonely.”

So is social media fueling national trends in youth mental health?

“It’s just very hard to answer scientifically,” he said.

Julian Shen-Berro is a reporter covering national issues. Contact him at jshen-berro@chalkbeat.org

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