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San Mateo Schools File Lawsuit Against Social Media Companies

On the heels of a similar lawsuit by Seattle Public Schools earlier this year, the San Mateo County superintendent and school board are suing social media companies for contributing to student mental health issues.

Technology lawsuit
(TNS) — A Bay Area county school board has sued the world's social media giants, claiming the companies unlawfully created "provocative and toxic" content to addict and entrap young people, leaving schools to address a destructive and growing youth mental health crisis.

The lawsuit, filed by the San Mateo County superintendent and school board late Tuesday in federal court, is the latest in a growing effort to hold big social media companies accountable through legislation, legal challenges and public pressure for devastating trends related to adolescent well-being, including an increase in suicide, depression and academic declines.

The lawsuit lands amid increasing pressure for politicians at the state and national level to crack down on how big tech companies market their products to children. Seattle Public Schools filed a similar lawsuit earlier this year.

Tech companies have defended themselves by saying they're working to address concerns about youth mental health by adding features that can limit children's access to screen time and apps, among other initiatives. But critics say that's not enough.

"San Mateo is indeed taking on giants, the who's-who of big tech social media companies, and it's the right thing to do," said Ann Marie Murphy, partner at the law firm Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, which is representing the county officials in the case filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. "The hope is that the schools can play their part in drawing attention to the harms that are being inflicted on school-age children, that the schools are witnessing firsthand."

The legal challenge alleges the companies — including Google, which owns YouTube; Snap, which owns Snapchat; and ByteDance, which owns TikTok, among other firms — are "using perhaps the most advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning technology available in the world today" and purposely designed the sites to be "addictive and to deliver harmful content to youth."

The suit alleges criminal conduct including racketeering, public nuisance, negligence and violation of the unfair competition law. The county officials want the companies' actions to be declared a public nuisance and seek a court order to stop them from engaging in the behavior. In addition, they want the defendants to fund a public education fund and pay actual, compensatory and punitive damages.

Google representatives did not respond to the lawsuit but did address concerns about youth access.

"We have invested heavily in creating safe experiences for children across our platforms and have introduced strong protections and dedicated features to prioritize their well-being," said José Castañeda, Google spokesperson. "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."

Representatives from the other companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The lawsuit alleges that intense use of social media can contribute to anxiety, depression, suicide and eating disorders among young people, pointing to data that shows a 117 percent jump in the number of emergency room visits for children with anxiety between 2007 and 2016 and a 40 percent jump from 2009 to 2019 in the proportion of high school students reporting persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. While the lawsuit acknowledges that the pandemic supercharged the crisis, it argues that skyrocketing mental health challenges predate COVID.

The suit cites a 2022 Pew study which found 97 percent of teens say they use the Internet daily and 52 percent use it almost constantly.

The schools bear the burden of the impact of the exposure to social media, including the mental health toll as well as other collateral damage, the suit alleges. That includes facilities damage related to the TikTok "Devious Lick" challenge, which encouraged teens to vandalize their schools, Murphy said.

It might seem like a very small David fighting several Goliaths, but San Mateo County Superintendent Nancy Magee is not intimidated.

"When you're standing up for children and youth, it's not intimidating at all," she told The Chronicle. "What better place to speak about this important issue than from a Silicon Valley perspective."

The effort to hold the tech companies accountable follows similar efforts against Big Tobacco.

"The public now knows that social media companies were keenly aware of the consequences of their tactics in targeting the vulnerabilities of children's brains," according to the lawsuit. "It is apparent that when the YouTube, TikTok, and Snap companies were faced with a choice about making a change, they decided to stay the course. They simply put profit over the health and safety of children."

Santa Clara University law Professor Eric Goldman questioned whether the lawsuit has any chance of succeeding given what he sees as a "wide range of problems."

That includes determining whether a social media product can create addiction in its user. Even if it can, lawyers would have to show which company caused the addiction. He gave the example of a gambling addict.

"Which casino addicted them?" he asked. "How do we know which casino addicted them?"

In addition, the lawsuit ignores other issues a student might be facing that could lead to mental health problems.

"There's a wide range of problems with this litigation," Goldman said. "They are swimming upstream and they have to know it."

The lawsuit comes on the heels of state legislation that requires tech companies to redesign their products in children's best interest. That includes banning companies from using a child's online data, including search terms, or profiling them using algorithms to lead kids to harmful content. The new law is scheduled to take effect next year, although tech industry groups filed a lawsuit in December to block it.

Lawyers for the education officials lambasted the tech pushback.

"Just as we had 'Big Tobacco,' we now have 'Big Tech' exploiting children," said attorney Joe Cotchett. "One need only follow the tech lobby's swift and forceful attacks on recent efforts by our California Legislature to put in place common-sense rules to address the tracking and profiling of users under the age of 18."

University of Washington law Professor Ryan Calo also questioned whether the Seattle lawsuit had a chance of success but said that even if it fails in the courts, it could still have an impact.

"It might not change the face of social media on its own, but it definitely contributes to the narrative that we have to do something," he said in a video response to the lawsuit on the university's website. "I think what will happen is that history will look back at this moment and if people ask, 'How bad did it get in social media before we did something?' we'll be able to say it got so bad that a public school felt they had to sue tech companies on behalf of their kids."

High school senior Cate Warden, who is a San Mateo County youth commissioner, said that what the lawsuit says about social media companies, including Snapchat and TikTok, "rings true."

"It's addictive," she said. "They know exactly what they're doing."

Warden, who attends Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco, said she was using TikTok so frequently that she locked use of the app on her phone during the week, ensuring only her parents had the password.

She said she can see the harm of social media on herself and her friends, with the ability to track friends' locations. That can lead to feeling left out if someone sees their friends are together and they weren't invited to join them, for example.

"Everyone feels on social media, whether they admit it or not, that they are not good enough," she said. "Constantly performing can get really exhausting, and I think that's where it becomes hard for people on social media."

She said she feels betrayed by the companies.

"They're willing to put profits over a whole generation of people," she said. "These are very real health issues these people are going to have to work through the rest of their lives."

©2023 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.