Blaming TikTok for harming students is easy. Proving it isn’t

Social media addiction is a growing concern and tech companies face an onslaught of litigation as a result. — Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

About half of adolescents have had a mental health disorder at some point in their lives, and some school districts are putting at least part of the blame on social media companies that they say addict America’s youth.

It won’t be easy to prove in court, but Seattle schools will try, having sued over the issue. They blame companies like Meta Platforms Inc., Snap Inc. and ByteDance Ltd., the owner of TikTok Inc., for contributing to the mental health crisis among students and say the addictive apps interfere with their ability to fulfill their educational mission.

"Social media really is harming the ability of students to learn and for teachers to teach, and students experiencing the mental health crises are performing worse in school, all of which is directly affecting the Seattle Public Schools’ mission,” said Felicia Craick, a lawyer with Keller Rohrback representing the Seattle district and its more than 100 schools.

The connection between the Seattle school district and its students’ mental health isn’t clear and could pose a problem for its arguments to a jury, said Eric Goldman, Santa Clara University School of Law associate dean of research and co-director of the High Tech Law Institute. The district must prove it’s being harmed by students’ addiction to social media in order to win.

Social media addiction is a growing concern and tech companies face an onslaught of litigation as a result. In addition to the lawsuit in Seattle by the city’s school district, more than 100 cases were filed by student users of the platforms making the same allegations. They have been combined in multi-district litigation in Oakland, California, which Seattle may join.

The plaintiffs will need to overcome a number of hurdles to prove their point and score large verdicts, legal experts say.

Direct blame

It’s not clear whether the schools can put direct blame on social media companies given that students’ poor mental health can also be attributed to a host of other reasons, including the pandemic that resulted in reduced social contact, Goldman said. There is also teenage angst, a condition that’s been around as long as teens have been transitioning from childhood to adulthood.

"There are so many things going on in teenagers’ lives that it’s not easy to blame any one factor” for their mental health, Goldman said.

Common mental health disorders in adolescence include those related to anxiety, depression, attention deficit-hyperactivity and eating, according to the US Department of Health & Human Services, which notes on its website that an estimated 49.5% of adolescents have faced mental health disorders.

The Seattle lawsuit appears to be the first of its kind, at least in the US, brought by a school district, though an Arizona school district filed a similar case last week, suggesting more are on the way.

The Seattle district’s main source of evidence is academic research showing a connection between the increase of exposure and time on social media platforms for youth and adverse mental health impacts on those kids, according to Dean Kawamoto of Keller Rohrback, another lawyer representing the Seattle School District.

In the multi-district litigation, the plaintiffs plan on using two categories of evidence: research by external scientists and internal research by the companies themselves. That includes documents revealed by former Meta employee Frances Haugen in late 2021, which alleged the company was knowingly preying on vulnerable youth for profit.

"It’s highly probative when a company itself acknowledges in its own secret documents that there’s a problem,” Previn Warren, court-appointed co-lead for the plaintiffs in the multi-district litigation, said. "There’s a wealth of scientific literature indicating a link between the rise of social media and the youth mental health crisis we’re now seeing.”

Meta wants teens to be safe online, Antigone Davis, the company’s global head of safety, said in a statement.

"We’ve developed more than 30 tools to support teens and families, including supervision tools that let parents limit the amount of time their teens spend on Instagram, and age verification technology that helps teens have age-appropriate experiences,” Davis said. "We don’t allow content that promotes suicide, self-harm or eating disorders, and of the content we remove or take action on, we identify over 99% of it before it’s reported to us.”

Representatives for TikTok, Snapchat and Alphabet Inc.’s Google similarly touted their efforts to increase users’ safety, with Snap also distinguishing itself as an app in which users primarily communicate with their friends, without some of the societal comparison features of other apps named in the case.

"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,” José Castañeda, a spokesperson for Google, said in a statement. "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.”

Big tech’s defense

Big Tech’s top defense would normally be Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the 1996 federal statute that grants internet platforms immunity from liability for users’ posts. But the statute is being challenged in a lawsuit that raises questions about whether Section 230 protects internet platforms when their algorithms target users and recommend problematic content. The case is pending before the US Supreme Court.

While Section 230 has garnered critics from the left and right, free-speech lawyers say it isn’t going away anytime soon.

"This shouldn’t be an open question,” said Catherine Gellis, an internet law attorney who has written appeals court briefs defending Section 230. "Section 230 has been on the books for a quarter of a century, and by and large, the courts have interpreted it correctly to be a broadly applicable statute that strongly insulates the helping functions that we need service providers to perform for the internet to work at all.”

She then drew a comparison between the plaintiffs’ attempt to regulate the internet and Florida governor Ron DeSantis’ attempt to regulate books in schools, stating: "In both instances, they’re trying to cut kids off from the world instead of teaching them how to cope with it.”

Notably, the judge presiding over the multi-district litigation has said that he doesn’t believe a "motion focused on Section 230 is efficient prior to the pending issues before the Supreme Court.” As of now, the same ruling hasn’t been decided in the Seattle case.

The inability to use Section 230 might not be that big a loss to the social media companies, however, according to Carter Phillips, a veteran Supreme Court and appellate lawyer who has handled Section 230 issues and whose firm Sidley Austin LLP has represented companies like Facebook in the past.

Phillips said the defense can use the plausibility standard, and argue that a cause-and-effect link between what the social media companies are doing and the harm the schools are alleging is not credible.

"It just seems implausible to me that you’re going to put the increased costs of local schools’ provision of mental health resources as a consequence of the way the internet is operating,” he said. "I have a hard time figuring out how anybody is going to be able to connect all of those dots in order to make a plausible, actionable complaint.”

The case is Seattle School District No. 1 v. Meta Platforms Inc., 23-cv-00032, US District Court, Western District of Washington (Seattle). – Bloomberg

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