Arizona school districts sue social media companies alleging harm to kids
At least 10 Arizona school districts have decided to sue TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat, alleging the social media companies have knowingly contributed to a mental health crisis among their students and forced them to divert resources to address it.
They join hundreds of school districts across the nation that have pursued litigation against the platforms this year. Seattle Public Schools was the first to do so in January, according to Joseph Tann, an attorney representing six Arizona districts.
More than 600 school districts nationwide have sued the social media companies, according to William Shinoff, an attorney representing four Arizona districts.
Though not all of them have filed a legal complaint yet, the Arizona school districts that have decided to retain counsel to sue the social media companies include Tolleson Union, Tempe Union, Tempe Elementary, Kyrene Elementary, Mesa Public Schools, Scottsdale Unified, Paradise Valley Unified, Phoenix Union, Chandler Public Schools and Sunnyside.
The districts are being represented on a contingency basis. That means there is no cost to them unless they win money from the social media companies.
Districts say social media contributes to mental health crisis
Arizona’s largest school district, Mesa Public Schools, filed a 111-page lawsuit in January, making it the third in the nation and the first in the state to do so, according to Tann, who is representing Mesa Public Schools.
The district, which serves more than 58,000 students in the East Valley, alleges the social media companies created a mental health crisis in its community and affected its ability to fulfill its educational mission.
The complaint alleges that the social media companies have intentionally designed their platforms to maximize the time users — particularly youth — spend on them. They’ve done so by exploiting the neurophysiology of the brain’s reward systems, despite knowing that social media harms young people, according to the complaint.
Students who experience anxiety, depression and other mental health issues “perform worse in school, are less likely to attend school, more likely to engage in substance use, and to act out,” the complaint says.
Mesa Public Schools’ complaint states that the number of youths using social media platforms has increased significantly since 2008, and during that time, youth mental health across the country has worsened. It points to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data that show that from 2009 to 2019, the rate of high school students who reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40%, and that between 2007 and 2018, suicide rates among people ages 10 to 24 in the U.S. increased by 57%.
The complaint cites a 2022 Pew Research Center study that found over half of teens say it would be hard to give up social media and nearly 20% of teens use YouTube “almost constantly.” That number is 16% for TikTok, 15% for Snapchat, 10% for Instagram and 2% for Facebook, the study found.
The complaint also cites a number of studies that suggest a link between social media use and negative effects on teenagers. These include “encouraging unhealthy social comparison,” causing a rise in cyberbullying, contributing to sleep deprivation and increasing the likelihood of disordered eating.
According to Mesa Public Schools Superintendent Andi Fourlis, social media has facilitated bullying among students in the district, which ultimately contributes to chronic absenteeism through disciplinary measures like suspensions and by making bullied students feel unsafe at school.
Social media also leads students to compare themselves and their lives to others, she said, which contributes to “huge, huge mental anguish in many of our children.”
As a result, school administrators must spend time investigating bullying and harassment incidents that occur on social media, she said, and the district has added counselors to its elementary schools and provides parent education on the ways they can monitor and control their children’s social media use.
Mesa Public Schools is “shifting taxpayer dollars into these mental health supports … when we’re reacting to a problem that has been created by those who are making billions of dollars,” Fourlis said. In the complaint, the district requests a judgment that includes relief to “fund prevention education and treatment for excessive and problematic use of social media.”
Tolleson Union High School District, which in early August hired Shinoff of Frantz Law Group to sue the social media companies, was recently part of a legal settlement with Juul Labs. The case that brought about the settlement alleged the e-cigarette company marketed its vaping products to youth. The same attorney who represented Tolleson Union in the case against Juul is representing the district in the social media lawsuit.
Tolleson Union Superintendent Jeremy Calles said he sees similarities between the two lawsuits.
“If companies are doing things that are harming students, that are manipulating students to do things that are against their own best interests, then yes, we’ll be a part of fighting against those companies,” Calles said.
Calles referenced the “devious licks” challenge that went viral on TikTok in September 2021, when students posted videos of themselves stealing school property and vandalizing bathrooms. Later that month, following backlash from school administrators across the country, TikTok removed the #deviouslicks hashtag. Now, a search for the hashtag leads to a page that warns users of the dangers of some online challenges.
Tolleson Union students participated in the “devious licks” challenge by trashing bathrooms and stealing property like soap dispensers and hand dryers, Calles said. Students caused harm to themselves by partaking in “criminal activities,” he said, which ultimately led to disciplinary measures for some.
“That’s going to mess up the student’s future. It’s going to detract from their education,” he said. “When they are promoting this all over social media like this is acceptable behavior, they are setting the student up for failure.”
In Mesa, social media challenges including “devious licks” have meant school administrators must spend time staying “one step ahead” of what’s coming next in social media, Fourlis said. During the “devious licks” challenge, students were getting in trouble who had never been in trouble before, leading her to believe that social media addiction can “propel kids to do things that they wouldn’t normally do,” she said.
Chandler Public Schools and Scottsdale Unified say in their complaints that they’ve seen a worsening mental health crisis among their students.
From July to December 2022, nearly 400 Chandler Public Schools students were assessed as having suicidal thoughts, according to its complaint, and in recent years the district introduced a Teen Mental Health First Aid program and established a school-based suicide treatment center.
In Scottsdale Unified, the percentage of students receiving homebound instruction due to mental health increased from less than 1% during the 2020-21 school year to 23% in the 2022-23 school year, according to the complaint.
Districts using legal strategy from opioid, tobacco, e-cigarette cases
The school districts’ claims are being brought under public nuisance law.
It’s a centuries-old doctrine that came out of medieval England to solve problems impacting public welfare, like blocked waterways and roadways, said Leslie Kendrick, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law. Over time, it’s been used by states — which have individual public nuisance laws — to pursue litigation against defendants that have allegedly interfered with a public right, which typically includes public health, public safety and access to public spaces, she said.
Public nuisance doctrine, which is “very flexible,” Kendrick said, was a backbone of state litigation against the tobacco industry in the late 1990s, which resulted in a $246 billion settlement. In more recent years, it’s been deployed in litigation over climate change and the opioid epidemic, as well as against e-cigarette and gun companies — with mixed results, she said.
When courts have ruled on whether products can be considered a public nuisance — which is a debated question among legal scholars — they’ve gone in different directions in different jurisdictions, she said. In 2021, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that its public nuisance law did not extend to the “manufacturing, marketing and selling of prescription opioids,” and that manufacturing and distributing products rarely causes a violation of public right — rather, a public right refers to a public good like air, water or rights-of-way.
Still, in tobacco, opioid and e-cigarette cases across the nation, public nuisance doctrine has “had a big impact with respect to settlements, kind of independent of how well it has fared in the courtroom,” Kendrick said.
Under Arizona law, a public nuisance is “injurious to health, indecent, offensive to the senses or an obstruction to the free use of property that interferes with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property by an entire community or neighborhood or by a considerable number of persons” and is barred when a person “knowingly maintains or commits” one.
Social media companies say they’ve taken measures to protect teens
Google, which owns YouTube, denied the complaints’ allegations in an emailed statement from spokesperson José Castañeda.
“Protecting kids across our platforms has always been core to our work,” Castañeda said. “In collaboration with child development specialists, we have built age-appropriate experiences for kids and families on YouTube, and provide parents with robust controls.”
Though Snap Inc. said it can’t comment on specific cases, spokesperson Pete Boogaard wrote in an emailed statement that Snapchat was “designed differently from other social media platforms.”
“Our app opens directly to a camera rather than a feed of content that encourages passive scrolling and is primarily used to help real friends communicate,” he wrote. “We aren’t an app that encourages perfection or popularity, and we vet all content before it can reach a large audience, which helps protect against the promotion and discovery of potentially harmful material.”
In an emailed statement, TikTok said its safety policies for teens include screen-time limits, parental controls and restrictions on messaging and live-streaming.
Meta, which owns Instagram and Facebook, did not respond to a request for comment.
Social media companies seeking to dismiss lawsuits
Past lawsuits against social media companies have sometimes proven unsuccessful because of a federal law commonly called Section 230, which provides immunity for internet companies with respect to third-party content generated by their users, Tann said.
Section 230, which was enacted as part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, acts as a shield for social media companies, he said. But, he said, these lawsuits are not Section 230 cases because they are not attempts to hold social media companies accountable for content users posted on their websites.
“This lawsuit, on the other hand, is about the choices made by these social media companies,” Tann said. “I think that’s where we are pioneering.”
Kendrick, the legal scholar at the University of Virginia, said the lawsuits against social media companies are similar to the ones against e-cigarette companies, which have largely been settled, in that they both focus on “harms to youth, harms to school districts, and marketing … that allegedly appeal to youth,” she said.
But in the cases against social media companies, Section 230 could interfere, as well as issues of free speech. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that suits between private parties cannot violate the First Amendment, and the social media companies claim that their products are speech — that “what they produce and how they produce it … should count as speech,” Kendrick said.
“The plaintiffs are going to have to run a gauntlet of free speech issues here that just don’t come up when you’re talking about opioids or e-cigarettes,” she said.
The social media companies have filed motions to dismiss the complaints under Section 230 and the First Amendment.
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