The San Mateo County Board of Education has filed suit against the parent companies of YouTube, Snapchat, and TikTok citing evidence that they were designed to be addictive and are harming the mental health of children. But where is San Mateo County resident corporation Meta in all this?
Following in the footsteps of Seattle's public school district, which filed a similar lawsuit in January, the school district in San Mateo County filed suit Wednesday against Snap Inc., Alphabet Inc., and ByteDance Inc., which respectively own Snapchat, YouTube, and TikTok, claiming that they are negligently harming American children and "monetizing misery" through the design of their apps.
According to the suit filed by Burlingame-based firm Cotchett, Pitre, and McCarthy, these three apps use purposefully addictive algorithms that has led to depression and suicidal behavior among children and teens.
The suit seeks to hold the companies liable for that negligence, and to prevent them from "engaging in further actions causing or contributing to the public nuisance." As KPIX reports, in addition to monetary damages, the suit wants to require the defendants to "fund prevention education and treatment for excessive and problematic use of social media."
"No one gets off the hook for the health and well-being of our young people,” says San Mateo Superintendent of Schools Nancy Magee, speaking to NBC Bay Area.
"And when we try to work with social media companies to remove content that could be directly harming a child, it's very difficult,” said Magee.
The lawsuit also makes mention of the fact that President Biden himself has come after social media companies, calling them out during his State of the Union address last month "for the experiment they are running on our children for profit."
It should be noted that the precursor suit, filed by Seattle Public Schools two months ago, includes two other named defendants, Facebook and Instagram. Both are, of course, under the umbrella of Menlo Park-based Meta, and that company, being based in San Mateo County, likely employs some parents of children in the school district. So, it has been left out of this lawsuit. (The argument could easily be made, though, that the kids have mostly abandoned Instagram and Facebook anyway, in favor of TikTok and Snapchat.)
The suit further compares the actions of the three companies, Alphabet, Snap, and ByteDance, to Big Tobacco and its well documented attempts to exploit children and addict them to their products.
This lawsuit arrives just as the Biden Administration is hardening its stance toward TikTok, pushing the American arm of the company to be sold to an American firm, and simultaneously supporting a congressional effort to get the app banned entirely. The app was already prohibited from being downloaded onto government-owned cellphones last month — a move that the UK government just followed suit with this week.
None of the companies would comment directly on the suit, but all three gave public statements about their efforts to improve teens' mental health.
"TikTok’s robust Community Guidelines and enforcement measures [work] to protect our community, and teens in particular," said a TikTok rep.
"Nothing is more important to us than the well-being of our community. At Snapchat, we curate content from known creators and publishers and use human moderation to review user generated content before it can reach a large audience, which greatly reduces the spread and discovery of harmful content," a Snap spokesperson said in a statement. "We also work closely with leading mental health organizations to provide in-app tools for Snapchatters and resources to help support both themselves and their friends. We are constantly evaluating how we continue to make our platform safer, including through new education, features and protections."
And a spokesperson for Google/Alphabet said, "We have invested heavily in creating safe experiences for children across our platforms and have introduced strong protections and dedicated features to prioritize their well-being."
Related: Google, Facebook, and Twitter to Be In the Crosshairs In Biden's State of the Union Address
Photo: Prateek Katyal