Prince George's Schools Sue Social Media Companies Over Mental Health Effects

May 19, 2023

The goal of the lawsuit is to "bring about much-needed change in how these platforms exploit children" and to get financial support for the needed increase in mental health resources

By Maggie More Published May 19, 2023 • Updated on May 19, 2023 at 2:07 pm

The Prince George’s County school system filed a lawsuit against several social media companies claiming those sites are addictive and add to the mental health crisis facing students. News4’s Darcy Spencer reports.

Prince George's County Public Schools are suing a collection of social media giants over what they describe as sites' negative effects on students' mental health.

The lawsuit was filed on Tuesday against Meta, the parent company for Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp; Google, the parent company for YouTube; ByteDance, the parent company for TikTok; and Snap Inc., the parent company for Snapchat.

"What we're dealing with is that, the four major social media platforms ... they really have infiltrated teenage students and children in middle school with algorithms, and certainly with design features, that have brought content that have led to children becoming addicted to social media," Philip Federico, an attorney representing the school district, told News4.

According to Federico, schools have seen "image problems, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and the like" as a result of "social media addiction."

The district claims that the social media sites "are intentionally designed to target and addict children," the school district said in a news release. "The algorithms driving these platforms are designed to manipulate users, especially young people, into falling down 'rabbit holes' so that they stay on the apps for as long as possible."

The school district claims that the addictive nature of the apps' designs has contributed significantly to mental health problems in teenagers, that the companies "prioritize profit over the safety and well-being of children through their advertising-based business models," and that the companies market to children, creating problems that schools and parents need to solve.

With children and teens spending more time online during the pandemic, the negative mental health effects of screen time have become a national conversation.

The American Psychological Association put out 10 social media guidelines for children, which are backed by research. News4's Erika Gonzalez explains.

A 2019 study in The Journal of the American Medical Association looked at different types of social media and screens and found the amount of time on screens can be detrimental, said psychiatrist Dr. Asha Patton-Smith of Kaiser Permanente.

“However, social media is what seems to be the biggest culprit with regard to challenges increasing depression and anxiety,” she said.

In February, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released an alarming report that analyzed health behaviors of more than 17,000 American high school students over a 10-year period, ending in 2021. The data looked at mental health, suicide, sexual violence, trauma and bullying experienced by high school students in the U.S.

The report found that more than 40% of boys and girls reported feeling “so sad and hopeless” that they were unable to engage in their usual activities for at least two weeks. The mental health of teen girls was especially bleak, with nearly three in five experiencing persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness in 2021, according to the CDC.

Twenty-two percent of the students surveyed “seriously considered” attempting suicide in 2021 — a staggering increase from 16% in 2011.

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Federico's law firm also represented schools in a lawsuit against electronic cigarette-maker Juul Labs Inc. over marketing strategies that allegedly targeted children too young to smoke. That lawsuit recently settled for $462 million.

The district said in the news release that funding that should have been put toward educational resources has had to be redirected to provide more mental health resources for the more than 131,000 students in the district.

The goal of the lawsuit is to change how the social media companies market to kids, and to get financial support for the needed increase in mental health resources at schools.

"The damages we're seeking from those platforms that have caused this problem basically fall into two buckets," Federico said. The first is "economic damages," money the school district would like to receive for the expenses that the schools have taken on because of problems they say are caused by the companies.

The second is that school district is also looking to change how the companies do business, Federico said. Social media is necessary, and "we're not going backwards, we're only gonna go forward, but there's a healthy way to do it."

"Unfortunately, the non-healthy way they've been doing it is much more profitable for them, but it's much more harmful to the children and much more taxing on the school boards," he said.

Federico said the district would like to see new algorithms from the companies that are less addictive in their designs.

Here's How the Social Media Companies Responded

Google contested the school district's claims.

"Protecting kids across our platforms has always been core to our work," a Google spokesperson said in a statement. "In collaboration with child development specialists, we have built age-appropriate experiences for kids and families on YouTube, and provide parents with robust controls. The allegations in these complaints are simply not true."

A Meta representative responded in a statement: “We want to reassure every parent that we have their interests at heart in the work we’re doing to provide teens with safe, supportive experiences online."

"We’ve developed more than 30 tools to support teens and their families, including tools that allow parents to decide when, and for how long, their teens use Instagram, age verification technology, automatically setting accounts belonging to those under 16 to private when they join Instagram, and sending notifications encouraging teens to take regular breaks," Meta's statement continues. "We’ve invested in technology that finds and removes content related to suicide, self-injury or eating disorders before anyone reports it to us. These are complex issues, but we will continue working with parents, experts and regulators such as the state attorneys general to develop new tools, features and policies that meet the needs of teens and their families.”

A Meta spokesperson also shared a list of tools and policies that the company has implemented with the aim of keeping teenagers safe, including the option to turn on Hidden Words for comments and DMs, and supervision tools that help parents see how much time their teen is spending on Instagram and to set time limits.

ByteDance and Snap, Inc. have not yet responded to requests for comment.

Taxpayers will not need to pay for the lawsuit, as the law firms are working on a contingency basis, meaning they are working for free until and if they win the suit.

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