The school systems of Howard and Harford counties have sued the world’s social media giants for exploiting the psychological vulnerabilities of children and causing a mental health crisis among the more than 100,000 students in those two suburban districts. —
That’s a big, bold claim, but it’s a thing now. Similar suits have been filed across the country, pleading that addictions to Instagram and TikTok, among other apps, have caused tweens and teens to lose sleep, struggle in school and become anxious and depressed.
The social media companies have reaped huge profits, the lawsuits say, while placing a heavier burden on schools to provide mental health services for their students.
“American children are suffering an unprecedented mental health crisis fueled by defendants’ addictive and dangerous social media products,” says the Howard County Board of Education’s suit against the corporations that bring us Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube.
Both suits claim that the defendants have programmed their apps to exploit kids by getting them to become obsessed with their products. “Defendants wrote code designed to manipulate dopamine release in children’s developing brains,” the plaintiffs argue, referring to the body’s chemical source of pleasure.
The consequences for kids include compulsive use of the apps for long periods of time, “intense cravings or urges to use” the apps, going into withdrawal when away from their smartphones, neglecting responsibilities at home and school, and using the apps even when it causes problems with family and social relationships. Obsessions with social media take the place of recreation and, the lawsuits say, kids continue to spend time on TikTok or Instagram despite the apps causing “significant harm” to their physical and mental health.
The lawsuits assert — and this appears to be a kind of Big Tobacco argument for the plaintiffs — that social media companies knew about and ignored several studies demonstrating the detrimental effects of their apps on kids.
The plaintiffs want a federal court jury to find that the actions of the social media companies constitute “a public nuisance under Maryland law,” and they want the publishers of Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat and YouTube stopped from continuing their allegedly exploitative practices.
The school systems seek funds for the prevention and treatment of “excessive and problematic use of social media” by their students as well as compensatory and punitive damages and, of course, the awarding of attorneys’ fees.
The Maryland suits follow a recent warning from Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, that “there are ample indicators that social media can pose a risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.”
That includes just about every teenager in the country, Murthy said, with 95% of those between the ages of 13 and 17 engaged in social media. More than a third of them have reported using one of the popular platforms almost constantly.
“Children are exposed to harmful content on social media, ranging from violent and sexual content, to bullying and harassment,” Murthy said. “And for too many children, social media use is compromising their sleep and valuable in-person time with family and friends. We are in the middle of a national youth mental health crisis, and I am concerned that social media is an important driver of that crisis — one that we must urgently address.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found an alarming rise in sadness, loneliness and feelings of hopelessness among teenage girls in the decade ending in 2021. “While all teens reported increasing mental health challenges, experiences of violence, suicidal thoughts and behaviors, girls fared worse than boys across nearly all measures,” the CDC said. “The new report also confirms ongoing and extreme distress among teens who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or questioning (LGBTQ+).”
All of this fits with what instinct tells us. And it’s not just a generational thing, with geezers complaining and worrying about kids on smartphones all the time. It’s more general than that, an uneasiness about the digital age and how we’ve adapted to it. Technological advances are great, but they come fast, and, as consumers, we tend to binge on them without considering harm because considering harm is no fun.
If anything, these lawsuits create a stop-and-think moment about how we live.
While I refuse to defend the companies, especially if evidence shows that they have absolutely no social conscience — and it’s no stretch to believe that — I should point out that a mental health crisis for American kids has been brewing for a long time, before the invention of the smartphone.
Aside from the natural struggles of adolescence, modern media put tremendous pressure on vulnerable kids in terms of body image and social expectations.
Also, the massive growth of the suburbs over the last 70 years has made millions comfortable but created physical isolation that’s hard to escape.
Some 40 years ago, the insightful sociologist Ray Oldenburg pointed to the social and emotional limitations created by the two-stop model of existence inherent in suburban living: For adults, home and work; for kids, home and school. When more of us lived in small towns and city neighborhoods, it was easier to get around without a car, to discover things, to hang out in “third places” (away from home, work and school), see friends, have conversations and feel more rooted, more human, part of something real. Nowadays it takes work to make all that happen. You can’t just push a button.