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Cumberland County Schools Join Lawsuit Against Social Media

The Cumberland County Board of Education in Tennessee has joined a lawsuit against Meta and Google for how their products contributed to disordered eating, unhealthy social comparisons and cyber-bullying among students.

(TNS) — The Cumberland County Board of Education voted to join a lawsuit against social media giants, including Meta, the parent company of Facebook, and Google alleging the companies products are impacting student mental health.

Director of Schools William Stepp said, "The access to information that the students have now is unprecedented. And, I think it is affecting how they do things.

"We deal with more mental illness now than we've ever had."

The school system is working with community partners to become a trauma-informed school system, with policies and programs aligned with helping students overcome past trauma.

"That's the overarching discussion that we're having right now," Stepp said. "And we feel that social media could play a part in that."

Stone Memorial High School Principal Kelly Smith said it's not just a high school issue.

"I think it's all grade levels," Smith said. "Parents allow access at a much younger age."

The Clarksville-Montgomery County School System filed suit May 8 against the technology companies. It was the first Tennessee school to join the national litigation, which was launched in January in Seattle.

Across the country, 41 states have sued Meta and other companies claiming the schools have had to bear the burden of increased mental health problems among their students.

Schools say they've had to hire additional personnel, like mental health counselors, to address the fallout of depression on academic achievement and student wellbeing.

In Seattle, school officials said there had been a 30 percent increase from 2009-'19 in the number of students reporting feeling "so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that they stopped doing usual activities." That year corresponds to when student access to smartphone and social media became widespread.

The multi-district litigation is being led by the Frantz Law Group of California, which recently settled a multi-district suit against e-cigarette maker Juul.

"They have identified some issues that they believe are affecting students across the country, and they are actively recruiting school districts to join in this litigation," said Earl Patton, Cumberland County Board of Education attorney. "The lawsuit alleges that these companies have caused a mental health crisis among children and teenagers that is marked by higher proportions of anxiety, depression and thoughts of self-harm, all of which severely affect their ability to succeed in school."

The suit points to issues such as content that encourages disordered eating, unhealthy social comparisons and cyber-bullying that causes students to experience anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.

"The main question that you've got to ask yourselves as a board is, are these issues affecting us and our kids?" Patton said.

Patton explained there is no cost to join the litigation. The law firms involved would be compensated with 25 percent of any award or settlement.

Rebecca Hamby, 7th District representative, moved to join the lawsuit, supported by Chris King, 6th District representative. The motion was approved with Nick Davis, 5th District representative, opposed.

Sheri Nichols, 3rd District representative, was not present. All other members of the board voted in favor of the motion.

While the litigation moves through the courts, several states are proposing laws that would regulate social media use among youth. Utah and Arkansas now require social media companies to verify users' ages and get parental consent for minors before they can set up accounts.

Utah also requires companies to block access to the platform for minors between 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m., grant parental access to minor accounts and limit data collection for minors.

A bill has been proposed in the U.S. Senate that would prohibit children younger than 13 from having social media accounts and require parental permission for children ages 14-17.

The bi-partisan legislation was introduced by Sen. Brian Schatz, D-HI, and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-AK.

©2023 the Crossville Chronicle (Crossville, Tenn.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.