Last week, Seattle Public Schools filed a lawsuit against a litany of social media companies—including Meta, YouTube, and Snapchat—alleging that the platforms' supposedly harmful behavior toward teenage users violates Washington state's public nuisance law.
"By designing, marketing, promoting, and operating their platforms in a manner intended to maximize the time youth spend on their respective platforms—despite knowledge of the harms to youth from their wrongful conduct—Defendants directly facilitated the widespread, excessive, and habitual use of their platforms and the public nuisance effecting [sic] Seattle Public Schools," the complaint states.
However, the lawsuit misses the fact that teenagers don't just stumble into destructive social media use—parents can choose whether to let their children be on social media, and many apps give parents the ability to place considerable restrictions on their children's activity. While unhealthy use of social media apps can certainly be an issue for many young people, Seattle Public Schools is attempting to solve this problem through government intervention.
There have been several high-profile lawsuits alleging unacceptable harm to children by social media companies recently, levied by state governments and grieving parents alike. In its complaint, the school district argues that social media companies' "misconduct has been a substantial factor in causing a youth mental health crisis, which has been marked by higher and higher proportions of youth struggling with anxiety, depression, thoughts of self-harm, and suicidal ideation." The district even goes so far as to link social media use to post-pandemic increases in everything from tardiness to physical fights.
Further, it claims that this crisis has caused direct harm to public schools, as "schools are struggling not only to provide students with mental health services but also to deliver an adequate education because of the youth mental health crisis."
Thus, the school district claims, social media companies' practices constitute a violation of Washington state's public nuisance law, which bans "whatever is injurious to health or indecent or offensive to the senses, or an obstruction to the free use of property, so as to essentially interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of the life and property." As the district's complaint argues, "Defendants have engaged in conduct which endangers or injures the health and safety of the employees and students of Seattle Public Schools by designing, marketing, and operating their respective social media platforms for use by students in Seattle Public Schools."
Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, a law protecting online platforms from being sued over content posted by their users, would seem to protect social media companies from being held responsible for so-called harmful content on their platforms—for example, pro-anorexia or pro-suicide content. But the lawsuit claims that this provision does not apply, writing that "section 230 is no shield for Defendants' own acts in designing, marketing, and operating social media platforms that are harmful to youth."
Seattle Public Schools makes considerable leaps when asserting that social media platforms are singlehandedly responsible for a wide range of behavioral problems among the youth it teaches. While analysts have long linked heavy social media use to mental illness, it's unclear if there is a definitive causal relationship. As Reason's Elizabeth Nolan Brown wrote last month, "most teens—59 percent—see social media as neither having a positive nor negative effect on their lives. Just 9 percent said it's mostly negative, while 32 percent said it's mostly positive. Many teens also say that life on social media is better than their parents assume it is."
The school district's lawsuit assumes that social media use among teenagers is inevitable. However, parents have the ability to control how much time their children spend on social media. Not only can parents simply refuse to buy their children the smartphones that enable problematic social media use, but social media apps themselves often allow parents to enact strict time limits and content controls.
"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," Antigone Davis, global head of safety at Meta, told Axios following the lawsuit.
Seattle Public Schools' lawsuit is mistaken to solely blame social media companies for rising mental health issues among teenagers. However, the suit is far from the first—and almost certainly won't be the last—attempt to regulate tech companies in the name of protecting children.