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Maryland school district sues Meta, Google and TikTok over ‘mental health crisis’

A Maryland school district is suing owner ByteDance of Meta, Google, Snap and TikTok for allegedly contributing to a “mental health crisis” among students. a lawsuit filed by the Howard County Public School System claims Thursday that the social networks run by these companies are “addictive and dangerous” products that have “rewired” the way children “think, feel and behave.”

The lawsuit cites a laundry list of issues on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat and TikTok accused of harming children. That includes the (allegedly) addictive “dopamine-triggering rewards” on every app, like TikTok’s For You page, which uses user activity data to provide an endless stream of suggested content. It also mentions Facebook and Instagram’s recommendation algorithms and “features designed to create harmful loops of repetitive and excessive product use.”

In addition, the school district accuses each platform of encouraging “unhealthy, negative social comparisons, which in turn cause body image issues and related mental and physical disorders” in children. Other parts of the lawsuit deal with “flawed” parental controls in each app, along with security loopholes that would promote child sexual exploitation.

“For the past decade, Defendants have relentlessly pursued a strategy of growth at all costs, recklessly ignoring the impact of their products on the mental and physical health of children,” the lawsuit states. “In a race to corner the ‘valuable but untapped’ market of tween and teen users, each defendant designed product features to promote repeated, uncontrollable use by children.”

The Howard County Public School System is far from the only school district that has recently decided to take legal action against social media companies. In addition to two other school districts in Maryland, school systems in Washington state, Florida, California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Alabama, Tennesseeand others have filed similar lawsuits over the negative effects social media has had on children’s mental health.

“We have invested in technology that finds and removes content related to suicide, self-harm or eating disorders before anyone reports it to us,” said Antigone Davis, head of security at Meta, in a statement emailed to The edge. “These are complex issues, but we will continue to work with parents, experts and regulators like the state attorneys general to develop new tools, features and policies that meet the needs of teens and their families.”

Google denies the allegations outlined in the lawsuit, company spokesman José Castañeda says in a statement to The edge“Working with child development specialists, we’ve developed age-appropriate experiences for kids and families on YouTube and provide robust controls for parents.” Meanwhile, Snap spokesperson Pete Boogaard says the company is “bold[s] all content before it can reach a large audience, helping to protect against the promotion and discovery of potentially harmful material.” ByteDance did not respond immediately The edgerequest for comment.

Critics have drawn attention to the potential impact of social media on children and teens, especially after Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen came forward with a wealth of internal documents proving that Meta was aware of the potential harm Instagram had for some young users. Last week, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a public opinion calling social media a “serious risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents”.

Some states have responded to social media safety concerns by enacting laws that prevent children from signing up for social media sites. While Utah will ban children under the age of 18 from using social media without parental consent starting next year, Arkansas has passed similar legislation banning minor children from signing up for social networks. At the same time, a wave of national online safety laws, some of which could implement some kind of online age verification system, have made their way to Congress despite warnings from civil liberties and privacy advocates.

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