The Howard County Public School System filed a lawsuit Friday against Meta, Google, ByteDance and Snap Inc., alleging the social media companies have exacerbated a mental health crisis among its student body of more than 57,000 as the district tries to maintain adequate mental health services and supports.
The defendants are the parent companies of the widely popular platforms Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat.
Howard joins a number of other school systems across the state and country, including Prince George’s and Harford counties, that have filed suit against the social media companies in recent weeks, arguing they targeted young users with addictive products as part of a “growth-at-all costs” strategy that ignores mental and physical side effects.
“Unfortunately, the mental health needs of our students are increasing exponentially, and the detrimental effects of addictive social media apps are making the jobs of educators so much more difficult,” Howard school board Chair Antonia Watts said in a Friday news release.
“As a result, critical funding is having to be allocated to providing increased mental health supports so our students are able to focus on learning,” she said. “This is an unnecessary burden, and it is crucial for these companies to acknowledge their responsibility in this crisis that profoundly impacts our youth.”
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The school system is seeking unspecified monetary damages to cover student education and treatment stemming from “problematic use of social media” and related school system expenses, and is calling on the companies to cease actions described in the lawsuit.
Last month, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory calling for increased safety and transparency standards and pointing to research that found excessive social media consumption can lead to heightened depression and anxiety among adolescents.
In the lawsuit, HCPSS said the companies’ actions had forced the district to hire additional personnel, increase staff training and develop new resources to meet students’ mounting mental, emotional and social health needs.
The Howard school board voted unanimously May 11 to retain Maryland- and Delaware-based firm Baird Mandalas Brockstedt Federico & Cardea to represent the school system in the suit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland.
“Across the nation, school systems like Howard County encounter the difficulty of catering to students’ needs while providing an exceptional education and cultivating a positive learning environment,” attorney Philip Federico said in the release. “This lawsuit is an effort to make social media companies liable for their contribution to the mental health crisis in young people, and to reimburse the Howard County Public School System for the financial strain caused by the defendants’ exploitative platforms.”
Howard also will be represented by Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein as part of a multidistrict litigation claim filed March 10 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California against the companies. The claim includes more than 230 plaintiffs, including school districts and state and local governments.
Both firms will work on a contingency basis, the release said, meaning there will be no cost to taxpayers.