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School Districts Sue Social Media Companies Over Alleged Harm to Youth Mental Health

Riddle Brantley LLP   |  April 15, 2023   |  

Youth Mental Health Lawsuits Against Social Media Companies Continue

School districts have sued social media companies over alleged damage to youth mental health.In March 2023, a California school district and a Pennsylvania county filed lawsuits against YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook, alleging the companies’ platforms harm youth mental health.

These are the latest in a wave of social media mental health lawsuits from individuals, school districts, and local governments against social media platforms and their parent companies. Allegations range from public nuisance and trade law violations to personal injury claims.

The Pennsylvania lawsuit, filed by the district attorney for Bucks County, claims that TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and YouTube were designed and marketed in ways that create habits and addiction. The plaintiffs claim that in doing so, the companies have violated the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, Pennsylvania’s Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law, and Pennsylvania’s public nuisance law.

Consolidation of Social Media Lawsuits into MDL

In October 2022, more than 80 mostly personal injury cases against social media companies were consolidated into federal multidistrict litigation (MDL) in the Northern District of California. As of April, 2022, the MDL includes 167 active and pending cases, including lawsuits filed by eight school districts.

The Board of Education in San Mateo County, California and their school system superintendent’s lawsuit has been added to this MDL. In this lawsuit, defendants are seeking financial compensation as well as funding for prevention education and treatment from YouTube, Snapchat, TikTok, and their respective parent companies.

The lawsuit also asks the court to hold the defendants liable for creating a public nuisance and order the companies to cease any further action directly impacting youth mental health.

Does Social Media Impact Mental Health?

A growing body of evidence points toward a direct connection between social media use and declining youth mental health. The San Mateo County Board of Education lawsuit cited a recent CDC report that found more than half of teenage girls in 2021 reported feelings of sadness or hopelessness, up from 36% in 2011.

Another CDC report, cited in the Bucks County lawsuit, showed that suicide rates for all people aged 10 to 24 spiked 60% between 2007 and 2018, following seven years of no increase from 2000 – 2007.

Experts cite a variety of reasons why social media can impact mental health. Consensus is growing that social media use is associated with anxiety, depression, and even physical sickness.

What is Section 230 and How Can It Impact Social Media Lawsuits?

Section 230 is a part of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that establishes protections for digital companies and platforms from liability related to third-party content created by users. Section 230 establishes a difference between publishers like online newspapers — where the people creating content are doing so at the express permission of the media outlet — and platforms like social media where anyone can create an account, log in, and share their own content.

If someone logs into Facebook and shares misinformation, Meta can’t be sued as the publisher of that information under Section 230. In addition to this protection, however, the section also allows platforms to regulate hate speech, harassment, and other speech that isn’t constitutionally protected. Many of the lawsuits filed against social media platforms claim that, because of this, the companies have a responsibility to restrict their negative impact on youth mental health.

Both the San Mateo County School Board and Bucks County lawsuits cite Section 230, claiming the alleged harm caused by social media falls outside the section’s protections.

Additionally, many of the personal injury lawsuits included in the social media MDL are product liability cases. Whether or not Section 230 shields social media companies from product liability cases will be another important question as these trials play out.

“Can I Sue for Social Media-Related Harm?”

Riddle & Brantley’s experienced attorneys are paying close attention as social media litigation continues to develop. If you believe you or a loved one have been harmed by social media use, call 1-800-525-7111 today or fill out the form at the bottom of this page. All consultations are 100% free, and you only pay attorney fees if we win and you receive financial compensation.