San Mateo COE suit alleges social media platforms negatively impact student mental health

On March 13, 2023, the San Mateo County Board of Education and county superintendent filed suit against YouTube, Snap (formerly Snapchat) and TikTok in the federal district court for the Northern District, alleging that these social media companies designed their platforms and/or applications to intentionally cause children to become addicted to them, resulting in increased rates of mental health issues for children. The suit further alleges that the plaintiff county board and superintendent have been negatively affected by the need to increase resources for students as a result. The plaintiffs have asked the court to order that the defendant social media companies’ conduct constitutes a “public nuisance” and order an injunction requiring them to “abate” the public nuisance. The suit also seeks monetary damages to address the costs that plaintiffs have incurred in having to address the impacts to their students of the defendants’ alleged conduct.

The 107-page complaint alleges that, “[u]sing perhaps the most advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning technology available in the world today, defendants purposefully designed their platforms to be addictive and to deliver harmful content to youth.” The complaint attributes the widely publicized mental health crisis among children to the use of these platforms and their content. Relying on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, the complaint links the increase in childhood and adolescent mental health concerns directly to when YouTube, Snap and TikTok began to operate (approximately 2011). The complaint alleges that, while the COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact, the increase in childhood mental health concerns had begun long before the pandemic.

According to the complaint, children’s brains are especially vulnerable to addiction to social media, which makes them a lucrative market of social media consumers. The complaint, for example, cited a 2018 study by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry that demonstrated that, on average, children and adolescents spend up to nine hours per day on social media, not including time spent online for homework. This addiction to social media, the complaint argues, is itself detrimental to children’s mental health, “including less curiosity, lower self-control, more distractibility, more difficulty making friends, less emotional stability, being more difficult to care for, and inability to finish tasks.”

The complaint also alleges that the content of social media is damaging to children and adolescents. Social media content such as those that portray unrealistic ideals of beauty, wealth and popularity, promote cyberbullying, and popularize eating disorders cause lower self-esteem and other serious mental health issues. The complaint alleges that though aware of these concerns, defendant social media companies took no action to address these concerns. Instead, they “have adjusted and optimized the underlying algorithms and features of their platforms to exploit these vulnerabilities.” Moreover, as alleged in the complaint, the main target of the platforms is children and adolescents, and the goal is to ensure that users stay on the platforms longer, resulting in higher advertising revenues for the social media companies.

The complaint cites a significant amount of scientific evidence and research regarding the use of social media by children and adolescents and its impacts on them, both generally and as applied to each of the defendant social media companies, to make its case. In addition, the complaint makes the claim that experts have determined that it is not just a temporal connection. Rather, experts have testified before Congress that social media is a primary cause of the mental health crisis among children and adolescents.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of numerous reports of concerning increases in mental health difficulties for students. It presents a novel theory about the cause of these concerns and links the increases in mental health concerns to increased costs for public educational entities. The defendant social media companies will no doubt bring their enormous financial resources to bear in this matter as it threatens their operations and, at least according to the complaint, a large part of their market. However, if the plaintiffs are successful, it is unclear what effect such an injunction would have on the platforms — the injunction does not request that the court order YouTube, Snap or TikTok to cease operations entirely. Rather, the complaint seeks to require the social media companies to change the manipulative practices that specifically target children and adolescents and cause them to become addicted to social media.