Public schools in Seattle have sued Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and YouTube, alleging that social media is one of the leading causes of “a youth mental health crisis” and for “exploiting the neurophysiology” of kids’ brains. The complaint accuses major social media platforms of breaking the state’s public nuisance statute and demands monetary penalties and other relief from them. The lawsuit was filed in the US District Court for the Western District of Washington.

“Defendants have 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,” the lawsuit said. “Worse, the content Defendants curate and direct to youth is too often harmful and exploitive,” the case added.

“Most youth primarily use five platforms: YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook, on which they spend many hours a day,” Seattle Public Schools said Friday in a statement on the lawsuit. “Research tells us that excessive and problematic use of social media harms youth’s mental, behavioral, and emotional health and is associated with increased rates of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, eating disorders, and suicide.”

Defendants include Facebook and Instagram’s owner, Meta; Snapchat owner Snap; TikTok owner ByteDance; and Alphabet, the owner of Google and YouTube.

The lawsuit also alleges that the companies’ “misconduct has been a substantial factor in causing a youth mental health crisis, which has been marked by higher and higher proportions of youth struggling with anxiety, depression, thoughts of self-harm, and suicidal ideation.”

“Defendants have maximized the time users—particularly youth—spend on their platforms by purposely designing, refining, and operating them to exploit the neurophysiology of the brain’s reward systems to keep users coming back, coming back frequently, and staying on the respective platforms for as long as possible,” the complaint said.

The rates at which kids suffer from mental health problems have “climbed steadily since 2010 and by 2018 made suicide the second leading cause of death for youths,” the Seattle school complaint said. Children spending more time on social networks during the pandemic “has only intensified this crisis,” the complaint also said.

The complaint said research shows “a clear relationship between youth social media use and disordered eating behavior” and that “the more time young girls spend on social media platforms, such as Instagram and Snapchat, the more likely they are to develop disordered eating behaviors.”

The lawsuit also blames social networks for online bullying. “The more time an individual, especially males, spend on social media, the more likely they are to commit acts of cyberbullying,” it said.

According to the complaint, about 59 percent of US teenagers “have experienced some form of cyberbullying,” which includes name-calling, untrue rumors, receiving explicit images without their permission, being stalked online, receiving physical threats, and having clear photos of them shared without their consent. The case cites data from the Pew Research Center.

According to Seattle schools, the behavior of social media corporations “constitutes a public nuisance under Washington law,” the court was requested to rule. The lawsuit also asks for an injunction barring the defendants from “continuing to engage in conduct causing or contributing to the public nuisance” and forcing them to “abate the public nuisance.” The school district also asks for “equitable compensation to support preventative education and treatment for excessive and problematic use of social media” in addition to monetary damages.

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