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More Schools Join Lawsuit Against Social Media Companies

School districts across Pennsylvania are suing Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat and similar companies based on the public nuisance legal theory and alleged contributions to mental health issues in children.

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(TNS) — As local school districts join a nationwide lawsuit against some of the largest social media companies, the educational leaders aim to bring awareness to the negative effects these apps and sites have on teenagers and children and hold the businesses accountable.

"We're alleging the public nuisance legal theory, which allows government entities to hold companies liable for unique damages caused by a company's conduct," said Ronald Repak, partner at Dillon McCandless King Coulter and Graham, LLP.

He and the firm represent nearly 30 regional school districts and have encouraged each to join the suit against Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat and similar companies.

Indiana Area School Board was one of the first, locally, to sign on, followed by Windber Area, Penn Cambria and Blacklick Valley.

Repak expects others, such as Greater Johnstown School District, to do the same.

"I do believe that social media has significantly contributed to mental health issues in our children," Blacklick Superintendent William Kanich said. "Currently, there are no or limited measures or restrictions in place to assist parents in monitoring what children have access to via social media. Additionally, some of the challenges put out there have resulted in personal and property damage."

These social media challenges are part of the crux of the lawsuit, which is being organized by the Frantz Law Group — a firm local districts worked with during the litigation against JUUL last year.

Repak said damaged district properties are a serious concern for educational leaders because those can be costly repairs. Greater Johnstown dealt with the situation last year when a group of students caused significant damage to a bathroom allegedly as part of a challenge.

Other dares that schools across the country have dealt with are attacks on staff that get recorded and posted for clout.

Other allegations against the platforms consist of inadequate age verification measures, insufficient parental controls, inescapable notifications, and it's believed, Repak said, these companies' algorithms target students.

Repak said there's no cost to districts or families to join the lawsuit, and the evidence the lawyers are providing is the number of mental health assessments completed by schools, resources expended, such as with repairs because of challenges and hiring of mental health specialists, and administrative time to assess issues caused by social media and related issues.

The mental health effect on teens has gained growing attention since the COVID-19 pandemic when social media saw increased use.

During that time, it was discovered some companies, such as Instagram's parent company Meta, were well aware of the negative effects these products had on youth, especially women.

Additionally, in 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General declared national advisory about youth mental health, blaming in-part social media for the issues, Repak said.

"I am old enough to have been in education pre-social media and internet and have observed first hand the increase in issues that students face," Kanich said. "Before social media, students could leave school and get a break from the constant interaction, but now it is 24/7 with what they are getting bombarded with. They need time to decompress, gather their thoughts and get away from the constant information."

He also alleged the algorithms are designed to get students to continually scroll or use each app endlessly.

"At a minimum, the thought is that the lawsuit will bring attention to the issue that our students face,and, at a maximum, hopefully there is some accountability for the social media companies with necessary changes coming about," the Blacklick superintendent said.

Galen George, Forest Hill's board president said his board joined the suit for several reasons.

"I think the biggest thing with this lawsuit ... is to kind of bring awareness to the social media issues," he said.

George noted that unfettered access to these platforms and a lack of effective age restrictions can negatively affect teens and children.

He's also worried about the dangers of the challenges that circulate on the apps and wants the companies to be held accountable.

George is the chairman for the Greater Johnstown Career and Technology Center Joint Operating Committee, and said that group voted to join the legal battle as well.

Walter Schroth, Indiana Area School Board president, said one of the challenges his board and district are consistently battling with is "safety and security of our students," which is why they joined the case.

The school director noted that some of the challenges that are out there, such as on TikTok, have the potential to jeopardize students and their safety.

"The basic, bottom line is we don't think those social media are governing themselves in best interest in the safety of our students," Schroth said.

He also said that although he's a strong believer in the First Amendment, these companies should be responsible for what's on their platforms.

Repak said to-date, Indiana, Windber, Kiski, Forest Hills, Homer-Center Area, Penn Cambria, Blacklick Valley and Berlin Brothersvalley school districts, Huntingdon County Career and Technology Center and GJCTC have joined the legal battle.

Additionally, Greater Johnstown School District has the matter on the agenda to approve at the next meeting on Tuesday and Salisbury-Elk Lick does as well on May 10.

©2023 The Tribune-Democrat (Johnstown, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.