Social media giants avoid US school districts’ addiction claims

The cases are among hundreds in state and federal court alleging that social media platforms are designed to be addictive and are dangerous for youths. — Image by freepik

Meta Platforms Inc and other social media companies won the dismissal of novel claims in hundreds of lawsuits brought by school districts seeking to recover costs for addressing the negative impacts of students’ social media use.

A California state judge sided Friday with Meta, Snap Inc, TikTok Inc and Google LLC in throwing out the districts’ allegations that social media has increased the cost of education because it makes students more distracted and disruptive, driving up the need for classroom discipline, employee training and communication with parents.

The cases are among hundreds in state and federal court alleging that social media platforms are designed to be addictive and are dangerous for youths.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Carolyn Kuhl wrote that there must be limits on liability – otherwise any company could be held responsible when “emotional harm” it inflicts on individuals then causes those individuals to “act out.”

“A restaurateur who negligently sold a diner spoiled food would be liable to the person who was later struck by the diner’s car, given that the diner’s poor driving may have resulted from suffering under the effects of food poisoning,” Kuhl said in her ruling.

The school districts alleged that the companies engineered their platforms to hook young users using algorithms and features such as the “like” button, in ways that hurt society – akin to cigarette manufacturers that designed their products to be addictive.

They also alleged that they spent “significant resources” dealing with the fallout from social media, including from challenges circulated on the platforms that allegedly encouraged students to damage school property.

The social media companies countered that they couldn’t be held responsible for content posted by third parties.

“We believe the court made the right decision in this ruling,” Meta said in a statement. “Meta is committed to supporting young people and their families, and we will continue to defend against all cases claiming otherwise.”

Representatives of Google, TikTok, and Snap didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

As of May 9 the cases pending before Kuhl in a so-called Judicial Council Coordinated Proceeding included 617 school district plaintiffs from 34 states, according to a court filing. Kuhl heard arguments last month from four school districts acting as test plaintiffs to present the claims common to the broader litigation.

“The school district plaintiffs are disappointed with the court’s decision and are evaluating all appellate options,” according to a statement issued by lead lawyers for the districts. “Nevertheless, this decision impacts a limited number of school plaintiffs in the JCCP, and counsel will continue to vigorously litigate claims on behalf of school districts with active cases in the JCCP.”

The school districts already faced steep odds using the public nuisance legal theory that they successfully employed against vape pen sellers because the districts don’t themselves experience social media addiction, nor does the addiction physically injure them, Kuhl wrote.

Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, the federal liability shield protecting online publishers from content-based lawsuits, is too powerful to allow the novel twist on common law to proceed, she reasoned.

Expanding the public nuisance theory to let school districts sue despite being “indirectly affected by the negative consequences of social media for youth would create a broad web of indeterminate liability that the common law has heretofore refused to impose”, Kuhl wrote.

A federal judge in Oakland overseeing hundreds of other cases recently held a hearing on the same issues and is expected to rule soon.

The Los Angeles and Oakland judges are also overseeing personal injury suits by youths and families alleging that the social media companies are responsible for causing widespread psychological distress and even suicides.

The judges have allowed some claims to proceed against the companies while dismissing others. The companies have denied wrongdoing, saying they’ve taken steps to keep young users safe on the platforms. – Bloomberg

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