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TikTok and Meta are being sued by the Seattle School District in connection with the youth mental health crisis.

A Seattle public school district has filed a novel lawsuit against the tech behemoths behind TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and Snapchat, seeking to hold them accountable for the youth mental health crisis.

Seattle Public Schools filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court on Friday. According to the 91-page complaint, the social media companies have created a public nuisance by marketing to children.

It holds them responsible for worsening mental health and behavioural disorders such as anxiety, depression, disordered eating, and cyberbullying, as well as making it more difficult to educate students and forcing schools to take steps such as hiring more mental health professionals, developing lesson plans about the effects of social media, and providing additional training to teachers.

“Defendants successfully exploited the vulnerable brains of youth, hooking tens of millions of students across the country into positive feedback loops of excessive use and abuse of Defendants’ social media platforms,” according to the complaint. “Worse, the content that Defendants curate and direct to youth is frequently harmful and exploitative…”

While federal law — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — protects online companies from liability arising from what third-party users post on their platforms, the lawsuit claims that provision does not apply in this case.

“Plaintiff is not alleging Defendants are liable for what third-parties have said on Defendants’ platforms,” the lawsuit stated. “Defendants affirmatively recommend and promote harmful content to youth, such as pro-anorexia and eating disorder content,” the complaint states.

Google and Snap said in emailed statements on Sunday that they had worked to protect young people who use their platforms.

In 2020, Snap launched an in-app support system called Here For You to help those experiencing a mental health or emotional crisis find expert resources. It also has enabled settings that allow parents to see who their children contact on Snapchat, but not the content of those messages. It has also recently expanded its content on the new 988 suicide and crisis phone system in the United States.

“We will continue to work to ensure the safety of our platform and to provide Snapchatters dealing with mental health issues with resources to help them deal with the challenges that young people face today,” the company said in a written statement.

According to José Castaeda, a Google spokesperson, Google, which owns YouTube, has also given parents the ability to set reminders, limit screen time, and block specific types of content on their children’s devices.

“We have heavily invested in creating safe experiences for children across our platforms, and we have introduced strong protections and dedicated features to prioritise their well-being,” Castaeda said.

Requests for comment from Meta and TikTok were not immediately returned.

According to the lawsuit, there was a 30% increase in the number of Seattle Public Schools students who reported feeling “so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row” that they stopped doing some normal activities from 2009 to 2019.

The school district is requesting that the court order the companies to stop causing the public nuisance, award damages, and pay for prevention education and treatment for excessive and problematic social media use.

While hundreds of families are suing companies for alleged social media harms to their children, it is unclear whether any other school districts have filed a complaint similar to Seattle’s.

Internal studies revealed by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen in 2021 revealed that the company was aware that Instagram was negatively affecting teenagers by harming their body image and exacerbating eating disorders and suicidal thoughts. She claimed that the platform put profits ahead of safety and withheld its own research from investors and the general public.

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