Why Bucks County, Pennsylvania, is suing social media companies
By Samantha Murphy Kelly, CNN Business
One mother in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, said her 18-year-old daughter is so obsessed with TikTok, she’ll spend hours making elaborate videos for the Likes, and will post retouched photos of herself online to look skinnier.
Another mother in the same county told CNN her 16-year-old daughter’s ex-boyfriend shared partially nude images of the teen with another Instagram user abroad via direct messages. After a failed attempt at blackmailing the family, the user posted the pictures on Instagram, according to the mother, with some partial blurring of her daughter’s body to bypass Instagram’s algorithms that ban nudity.
“I worked so hard to get the photos taken down and had people I knew from all over the world reporting it to Instagram,” the mother said.
The two mothers, who spoke with CNN on condition of anonymity, highlight the struggles parents face with the unique risks posed by social media, including the potential for online platforms to lead teens down harmful rabbit holes, compound mental health issues and enable new forms of digital harassment and bullying. But on Friday, their hometown of Bucks County became what’s believed to be the first county in the United States to file a lawsuit against social media companies, alleging TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat and Facebook have worsened anxiety and depression in young people, and that the platforms are designed to “exploit for profit” their vulnerabilities.
“Like virtually everywhere in the United States now … Bucks County’s youth suffer from a high degree of distraction, depression, suicidality, and other mental disorders, caused or worsened by the overconsumption of social media on a daily basis, which substantially interferes with the rights of health and safety common to the general public,” the lawsuit alleged.
The lawsuit, which was filed in California federal court, said “the need is great” to continue to fund mental health outpatient programs, mobile crisis units, family-based mental health services, and in-school mental health programming and training to address the mental health of young people. Bucks County is seeking unspecified monetary damages to help fund these initiatives.
Bucks County is joining a small but growing number of of school districts and families who have filed lawsuits against social media companies for their alleged impact on teen mental health. The unusual legal strategy comes amid broader concerns about a mental health crisis among teens and hints at the urgency parents and educators feel to force changes in how online platforms operate at a time when legislative remedies have been slow in coming.
Seattle’s public school system, which is the largest in the state of Washington with nearly 50,000 students, and San Mateo County in California have each filed lawsuits against several Big Tech companies, claiming the platforms are harming their students’ mental health. Some families have also filed wrongful death lawsuits against tech platforms, alleging their children’s social media addiction contributed to their suicides.
“I want to hold these companies accountable,” Bucks County district attorney Matthew Weintraub told CNN. “It is no different than opioid manufacturers and distributors causing havoc among young people in our communities.”
He believes he has an actionable cause to file a lawsuit “because the companies have misrepresented the value of their products.”
“They said their platforms are not addictive, and they are; they said they are helpful and not harmful, but they are harmful,” he said. “My hope is that there will be strength in numbers and other people from around the country will join me so there will be a tipping point. I just can’t sit around and let it happen.”
In response to the lawsuit, Antigone Davis, the global head of safety for Instagram and Facebook-parent Meta, said the company continues to pour resources into ensuring its young users are safe online. She added that the platforms have more than 30 tools to support teens and families, including supervision tools that let parents limit the amount of time their teens spend on Instagram, and age-verification technology that helps teens have age-appropriate experiences.
“We’ll continue to work closely with experts, policymakers and parents on these important issues,” she said.
Google spokesperson José Castañeda said it has also “invested heavily in creating safe experiences for children across our platforms and have introduced strong protections and dedicated features to prioritize their well being.” He pointed to products such as Family Link, which provides parents with the ability to set reminders, limit screen time and block specific types of content on supervised devices.
A Snap spokesperson said it is “constantly evaluating how we continue to make our platform safer, including through new education, features and protections.”
TikTok did not respond to a request for comment.
The latest lawsuit comes nearly a year and a half after executives from several social media platforms faced tough questions from lawmakers during a series of congressional hearings over how their platforms may direct younger users — particularly teenage girls — to harmful content, damaging their mental health and body image. Since then, some lawmakers have called for legislation to protect kids online, but nothing has passed at the federal level.
Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, believes it will be “difficult” for counties and school districts to win lawsuits against social media companies.
“There will be the issues of showing that the social media content was the cause of the harm that befell the children,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t file these lawsuits.”
Tobias added that increased support for government regulation that would impose more restrictions on companies could impact the outcome of these lawsuits in their favor.
“For now, there will be different judges or juries with diverse views of this around the country,” he said. “They aren’t going to win all of the cases but they might win some of them, and that might help.”
Whatever the outcome, the mother of the 16-year-old whose intimate photos were shared on Instagram is applauding the district attorney’s office for sending a strong message to social media companies.
“Before the incident with my daughter, I would not have given a lawsuit filed by the county much thought,” she said. “But now that I know how hard it was to take content down and there’s only so much people can do; corporations need to do so much more to protect its users.”
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