Adolescent social media use triggers TCS lawsuit against social media giants

Ainsley Platt | @ainsleyplatt, News Editor

School districts nationwide have taken the battle against worsening adolescent mental health to the courts, suing social media companies that they say are contributing to spiking rates of anxiety, depression and other issues. Recently, Tuscaloosa City Schools joined the fight alongside two other Alabama school districts. 

Mike Daria, the superintendent of TCS, said peer conflict is at an all-time high in his district — something he attributes largely to social media. He said these conflicts “are distractions that prevent [TCS] students from being able to come into school and focus on learning.” 

Evidently, TCS is not alone in this belief. States and school districts nationwide — from California to Kentucky — have filed lawsuits against major social media companies — TikTok, Meta, Snapchat and Alphabet most prolifically — alleging that the companies’ business practices harm children’s mental health and the academic environment.  

Recently, TCS joined a lawsuit with two other Alabama school districts against the aforementioned companies, citing an “egregious breach of the public trust” in its complaint. TCS, along with Baldwin County and Montgomery County Schools, accuses the companies’ products of creating “mechanisms to reward extreme usage while producing harmful social comparison” along with “record rates of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.” 

According to the American Psychological Association, the presence of certain mental health issues have increased “significantly” amongst young people over the decade preceding 2019.  

Daria said the hope was that the lawsuit would force the companies to pay for services the school system already provides to students, such as mental health counseling, the 13 social workers on staff, and resources for suicide prevention and substance abuse. Another goal is to have the companies change their policies and practices when it comes to young users.  

“We spend a good bit of our resources supporting our students in the aftermath of the impacts of social media, with mental health, with conflicts, with disruptions to learning and disruptions to education,” Daria said.  

“You see social media targeting young people in issues with their own identity and their own growth as a young person,” he said. “Unfortunately, a lot of that learning is coming from unreliable sources in social media, as opposed to parents and schools and communities.” 

Robert Laird, who chairs the University’s department of human development and family studies, said social media can help young people find community, but at the same time, the algorithms that are a central part of the platforms can have an impact on the identity-seeking process that defines adolescence. 

“The algorithm can be particularly interesting in that scenario where the algorithms tend to tell you ‘Everybody else sees the world the same way you do,’ because it feeds you the things you’re interested in,” he said. 

In the lawsuit filed in California, TCS and the other plaintiffs said that the students affected by the companies’ alleged actions perform poorly at school, are more likely to be absent from class, and are more likely to use substances and act out, “which directly affects [school districts’] ability to fulfill their educational mission.” 

The lawsuit goes on to say that the companies know their products harm minors, yet they still attempt to grow the use of their products in that demographic rather than attempting to safeguard minors’ health and safety. It cites internal documents, known colloquially as the “Facebook Files,” that were leaked by whistleblower and former Facebook employee Frances Haugen in 2021. Indeed, those documents contained evidence pointing to Instagram — which is owned by Meta, the same company that owns Facebook — being aware that its platform was harming adolescents, especially teenage girls. 

“Defendants, through addictively designed products fueled by extreme data tracking, are ruthlessly extracting every dollar possible from youth with callous disregard for the harm to their mental and physical health, the lawsuit reads. 

The conversation about social media and mental health is nothing new — as illustrated in the Facebook Files, Instagram has been researching the effects of social media for years — but the lawsuits filed by school districts against social media giants are. It began in January, when a Seattle school district filed suit against the same four companies TCS sued. Since then, others have begun filing lawsuits, attempting to hold the companies accountable for what many say is a surge in mental illness in young people. 

Jessica Maddox, an assistant professor at the University who studies social media and mass communications, said she is not convinced that social media is entirely to blame for the rising rates of mental illness, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, school shootings and other issues young people have recently been exposed to. 

“If you take a step back and think about everything Gen Z and Gen Alpha are dealing with, it just doesn’t surprise me that this generation is seeing a massive spike in mental health problems,” Maddox said. 

While Maddox said she does believe social media giants need to be held accountable, said she believes lawsuits aren’t the right way to go.  

“I don’t think these lawsuits are the way to go. … Instead of fostering this antagonistic relationship through lawsuits, I would prefer to see school systems work with platforms. ‘What educational resources can we bring in? How can we teach our students what social media literacy is?’” 

Daria said he didn’t agree with Maddox and that prior to joining the lawsuit, they had not been in communication with any of the companies involved in the litigation to try and find an alternative solution. 

“We provide media literacy as part of our education in our school system and in our state,” Daria said. This education, which Daria said is integrated in the system’s curriculum and isn’t its own class, involves students looking at “media and primary sources are critical of whether or not it’s a valid resource or a fact, or whether it’s a logical and reasonable source for information.” 

While Daria said that having social media companies provide media literacy resources for students would be a reasonable approach, he also said that providing resources without taking a more responsible approach was a one-way solution.