Seattle Public Schools kicked it all off in January of 2023.
A 91-page lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court against big technology companies behind such popular social media operations as, TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, and Twitter.
The suit alleged the companies knowingly created mental health and behavioral problems such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and cyberbullying among students in the district. That, in turn, increased the burden on the schools to deal with those issues—and Seattle wanted big tech to foot the bill.
It seemed like a good enough idea that Kent, a district south of Seattle, filed a similar suit in the same court a few days later. After that, a veritable parade of districts and municipalities cranked up their legal departments and spit out complaints: nine in all, from districts as far away as New Jersey and Arizona.
Even San Mateo County, where Meta’s headquarters are located, joined in.
Now, the question is, should your school district join the party?
Why School Districts Across the Country Are Suing Social Media Companies
NCES, the National Center for Education Statistics, found in 2022 that roughly half of public school systems felt sufficiently equipped to offer mental health services to all students who needed them. That came at the same time as a finding that more than 70 percent of schools had experienced an increase in students seeking those services, and three-quarters reporting that staff had noted increasing incidences of depression, anxiety, and trauma among their students.
Of course, after two years of disruption and lockdowns, increasing mental health issues were to be expected. But these lawsuits reach back further, citing climbing rates of mental health issues stretching back to 2010. The Seattle suit claims this is behind the rise of suicide, allowing it to become the second leading cause of death for teenagers by 2018.
The pandemic only accelerated the flight to social media, however. A Common Sense Media survey showed screen time for teens and tweens jumped 17 percent between 2019 and 2021. And much of that time was spent on social media—Pew’s 2022 Teens, Social Media, and Technology survey showed that 95 percent of teens use YouTube, with 19 percent using it almost constantly. TikTok and Instagram aren’t far behind, with 16 percent and 10 percent constant usage reported. None of this is astounding to parents and teachers who see this level of use daily… but that doesn’t make it any less troubling.
This is the background to the landscape of behavior and mental health issues schools are dealing with. While problems in the classroom are universal, most of the suits specifically cite the increased costs of providing mental health services to students. But, according to NCES data, only around half of all public schools offer mental health assessment services, and only 42 percent offer treatment.
So to make the same arguments, your school or district would have to fall into that group.
With Guns as the Counterargument, Making the Connection Between Social Media and Mental Health Will Be a Tough Case
The why behind these lawsuits is easy to understand. The how is a bit more complicated.
Correlation, as your social studies and math teachers preach in class every day, is not causation. Probably 95 percent of teens brush their teeth every day, too, and no one alleges that it harms their mental health. Making the case for causation means tying the trouble to exactly why it happened.
Mental health is always a tough area to litigate. It almost always comes down to expert witnesses and competing interpretations of data.
In a competing narrative, and one that rings all-too-plausible to many school administrators today, the rise in youth suicides can be ascribed to an ever-increasing availability of firearms. They are, after all, the instrument of more than half of all suicides according to CDC data from 2021.
Moreover, while the Seattle lawsuit cites suicide as the second leading cause of death for teenagers, that’s not entirely true. For the age range of 10 to 14 year-olds it is—but among 15 to 19 year-olds, it’s replaced by homicide… another indicator it may be guns, not apps, serving as a root cause of death.
Of course, all those questions are why cases go to court. Judges and juries are meant to hash out the information and come to a conclusion.
But with so many questions up in the air, it’s easy to see why many of these lawsuits face a tough road to victory.
Dipping Your Toe Into Political Hot Water May Invite Blowback
There is clearly a political dimension to the suits; in the Seattle case, it’s even made explicit, citing a call by President Biden in his 2022 State of the Union address to hold social media companies accountable for their effects on children as justification for the suit.
Most school administrators are eager to run the other way from any hint of political firestorms. But on the other hand, sometimes they represent a moment of alignment where big things can happen.
Naturally, this kind of decision doesn’t rest with a superintendent alone. But it will be your call on whether or not to recommend such a big step to your board. And that may rest with your own tolerance for controversy.
Whether It’s Legal Action or Other Remedies, It’s Time for Action When it Comes to the Mental Health of Our Students
Being an educational leader means making hard calls on behalf of the students who are your responsibility. In some senses, filing a tough-to-win lawsuit is a very hard call… at the end of the day, it’s unlikely that any of these efforts will either diminish social media use among kids or result in a windfall of mental health funding for the districts.
In other ways, however, these lawsuits can be a way to draw attention to an increasing problem and to shape the discourse and legislation around an otherwise unapproachable problem. Any individual school or district has a limited voice in the affairs of technology and regulation. But a court case can’t be shrugged off. Already, the reporting around these suits is drawing comments and support from legislators.
Don’t Ignore the Secret Weapon Educational Leaders Have When it Comes to Influencing Society
Being a school principal or superintendent will always mean having to deal with social forces outside the control of your school or district. But it also offers something that we sometimes fail to recognize: a lever with which to shift those forces.
Because it’s the generation that you are teaching that will be creating the society we all experience in the decades to come. Lawsuits aren’t your only tool for changing social media culture.
For your part, the solution may not be as glamorous or as explosive as a headline-grabbing federal lawsuit. Educating students on the forces that are shaping their world is sort of already part of your job. Social media and technology is definitely one of those forces.
Going back to the Pew survey, around 60 percent of teens say that giving up social media would be at least somewhat difficult for them. But on the other hand, use of Facebook dropped from 71 percent in 2014 to only 32 percent in 2022 among teens —and other social media platforms also experienced declines.
This tells us that it’s not an impossible mission.
How you choose to deal with the harsh problems associated with social media will be an individual decision shaped by the unique nature of your district and student population. But despite the pressures, remember the power of education in itself, and don’t underestimate your ability to create a better world through it.