A new lawsuit alleges that Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and YouTube intentionally target teens with addictive algorithms and knowingly expose teens and pre-teens to harmful health effects that come from using their platforms. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the plaintiff, Miami Dade Public Schools, the third largest school district in the country. The complaint filed is 135 pages and refers to dozens of studies and/or cases relating to a child mental health crisis that the plaintiff alleges has been caused, in part, by rampant social media use.
The firm Robbins, Geller, Rudman, and Dowd LLP allege that the platforms have violated the Florida nuisance law, Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act (FDUTPA), and also the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). The lawsuit requests that the platforms to “abate the public nuisance” and to “deter and/or prevent the resumption of such nuisance.” The suit is seeking “equitable relief to fund prevention education and treatment for excessive and problematic use of social media.” Lastly, the plaintiffs request actual and compensatory damages, statutory damages, punitive damages, and reasonable attorney fees/costs.
The complaint states, “Social media use is linked to increases in mental, emotional, developmental, and behavioral disorders. They include cyberbullying, eating disorders, cutting, depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, vandalism, violence, and suicide-related outcomes. These negative impacts have been demonstrated by both independent research and internal data from the social media platforms themselves.”
The lawsuit further explains a large bulk of the harm and depression caused to children stems from kids making negative and unhealthy social comparisons to their peers. Young girls are more likely to develop eating disorders as they spend more time on social media platforms, especially Instagram and Snapchat.
The suit also details two different TikTok challenges. The “Devious Lick” challenge dared students to steal and vandalize schools. This challenge has led to the arrest of students across the country and caused TikTok to remove videos with the hashtag. TikTok users modified the hashtag to continue the trend.
A more concerning TikTok challenge the suit refers to is the “Skull Breaker” challenge. The challenge was for one student to ask another to jump high off the ground. After the student does this, the “prank” is to kick the legs out from under the person. This causes the person to fall backwards, causing the head to hit the ground. The suit refers to one girl in the school district who had to visit the hospital for injuries sustained. The other students posted the humiliation video to TikTok. There are reports of death from this challenge and several other TikTok challenges that went viral over the past five years.
The suit also includes several alarming statistics to raise concern about the health and well-being of children in today’s society. The number of middle and high school children who have considered or attempted suicide has grown to 22%, an 11% increase from 2011. Alarmingly, 18% of the 22% went so far as to create a suicide plan. In 2017, 7.5% of Miami Dade County students had attempted suicide, according to a risk management survey conducted by the Florida Department of Health.
According to the same survey, 2.4% of high school students said they had carried a weapon on school property. 7.1% reported that they had been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property. The lawsuit also mentions 31 students within the school district died of suicide between 2019 and 2022, including some as young as 10 and 11 years old.
Between 2007 and 2016, ER visits for children (5-17) increased by 117% for anxiety disorders, 44% for mood disorders, and 40% for attention disorders. In 2020, over 3.1 million kids aged 12-17 sought mental health services in an education setting. Only 41% of middle schoolers and 36% of high schoolers were satisfied with the services provided. The lawsuit complaint paints the picture of a mental health crisis in schools. As a result of the increased mental health concerns in school-aged children, schools are struggling to provide the mental health services these kids need.
After establishing a connection between poor mental health in school children and social media use, the complaint details how social media platforms use complex algorithms to cause addiction. The lawsuit states, “Defendants view young, and even preadolescent, users as one of their most valuable commodities as an audience for their advertisements. Young users are central to Defendants’ business model and advertising revenue as children are more likely than adults to use social media. Indeed, 95% of children aged 13 to 17 have cell phones, 90% use social media, and 28% buy products and services through social media.”
“In the name of profit, Defendants have progressively modified their platforms in ways that promote excessive and problematic use and have done so in ways known to be harmful to children.” The complaint talks about algorithms as tools for making a profit and that social media platforms copy designs and features of other platforms to increase the addictive quality. The algorithms are designed to increase dopamine spikes and cause users to spend more time on the platforms.
The plaintiffs and law firm have made compelling arguments about the negative effects social media is having on children. They also make several points regarding the business model of the social media platforms; it is intended to target children and get them addicted to the curated content feeds. This lawsuit is still in its early stages.
The summons has been received by the Defendants and they have until November 9 to file a response.