On January 6, 2023, the Seattle Public Schools filed a complaint in federal court against the companies operating the popular social media platforms TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and YouTube.
Their lawsuit seeks to hold those social media companies accountable for harming Seattle-area students’ social, emotional, and mental health. To that end, the Schools request a court order barring the companies from engaging in certain allegedly harmful practices, as well as an unspecified amount of monetary damages.
Seattle Public Schools Explains Its Lawsuit
In a post to its official website, Seattle Public Schools (SPS) explained that it had decided to file the lawsuit because “young people... are struggling with anxiety, depression, thoughts of self-harm, and suicidal ideation” allegedly caused by social media use. SPS explained that as a provider of student health services, its students’ mental health difficulties affect “the SPS mission to educate students by draining resources from schools.”
SPS lays at least part of the blame for those difficulties at the feet of the social media companies—specifically, their practices of allegedly marketing to young people and creating unhealthy digital environments. The lawsuit does not seek to eliminate social media, according to SPS, but rather to “[change] how social media companies operate” and “force [them] to take responsibility for the harm caused by their business practices.”
Understanding the Impact of Social Media on Mental Health
Thirty-five percent of teens note that they spend time on at least one of the five major social media platforms almost constantly. As many as eight in ten teen users connect to platforms like YouTube and Instagram daily, and 86 percent of Snapchat and TikTok users visit those platforms daily.
Adolescents who spend more than three hours per day on social media—far less than those amounts—may find themselves at heightened risk for mental health challenges. Unfortunately, teens may not recognize the potential dangers associated with regular social media use. In fact, 31 percent of teens feel that social media has a positive impact, and around 45 percent believe that social media has neither a positive nor a negative impact on their generation.
Research, however, continues to show that social media can harm teen mental health.
1. Teens Have Suffered High Levels of Harassment and Bullying Online.
As many as 59 percent of teens have faced some type of bullying or harassment online.
That harassment may include:
- Offensive name-calling tops the list. Around 42 percent of teens have experienced some type of offensive name-calling on a social media platform or while engaging with others online.
- 32 percent of teens have experienced someone spreading false rumors online. False rumors can substantially impact a teen’s reputation and self-esteem, often making it difficult for teens to build healthy offline relationships.
- 25 percent of teens have received explicit images they did not ask for. These do not represent teens who may have deliberately initiated sending those types of images.
- 21 percent of teens have faced harassment by someone who constantly wants to know their location, companions, and other key information.
- 16 percent of teens have gone through physical threats of violence issued online.
- 7 percent of teens have had explicit images of themselves shared, even though they did not give consent. More teens may have experienced some image sharing without realizing it.
These high levels of harassment and bullying can lead to a number of mental health challenges. Bullying can cause feelings of rejection and isolation in many teens. In addition, it can cause lowered overall self-esteem and, in some cases, an increased risk of developing depression or anxiety.
Unfortunately, adults often have no idea that online bullying has taken place. In many cases, since that bullying takes place online, teachers, parents, and other adults will have no access to that content unless a teen breaks the silence and shares that information.
2. Feelings of Loneliness Actually Rise With Increased Access to Smartphones and Social Media.
Most teens note that social media helps keep them connected to their friends. In reality, however, loneliness at school may occur along with increased smartphone access. Teens with smartphone access often use virtual content as a substitute for face-to-face interaction with peers. While some social interaction went online during the early days of the pandemic out of necessity, teens still need that vital in-person connection with friends and family members to improve their overall mental health and social functioning.
Social media may allow for some degree of connection, but it can also feel very isolating. Many teens begin to substitute actual social interactions for likes, comments, and shares. When posts go unnoticed, teens may feel even more isolated. Many teens may also struggle with lower virtual friend counts, fewer people noticing their posts and content, or noting that other friends may have engaged in fun activities without them. Those feelings of isolation may grow when teens have isolated themselves for any reason.
3. Teens Who Spend More Time on Social Media May Suffer From Higher Rates of Depression and Anxiety.
Social media use can lead to a significant increase in depression and anxiety. First and foremost, teens may struggle with feelings of loneliness and isolation caused by social media use. Second, online relationships, including friendships formed based on social media connections alone, may prove less satisfying than in-person relationships.
Depression and anxiety may also link back to dopamine production. Social media’s design encourages the release of small bits of dopamine regularly. Every like, share, or comment releases a little burst of dopamine, as does interacting with others on those platforms.
Unfortunately, that, in turn, may lead to depression in the absence of that dopamine.
Furthermore, teens may feel unexpectedly anxious about the reactions others may have to the content they share across those platforms. That increased anxiety can carry over into the real world.
4. Social Media Can Prove Highly Addictive.
Most people have had the experience of struggling to put a device down and stop scrolling, even after dark or when needing to participate in other activities. Unfortunately, many teens struggle with social media addiction that keeps them glued to their devices and, in many cases, missing out on much-needed interaction with peers and family members. Social media addiction may also lead to poor sleep, which can further interfere with mental health and lead to higher rates of depression.
5. Many People, Including Teens, Suffer From an Overall Decrease in Life Satisfaction When Passively Viewing Content on Social Media.
Social media tends to show a highlights reel. Even when they post negative information about their struggles, many people use social media posts to paint themselves in the best possible light. Unfortunately, many people compare their everyday existence to others’ highlight reels.
Even for adults, comparison can hit hard when they see friends and family members going on expensive vacations or posting positive comments about their spouses, kids, and lives. For teens, that comparison can feel even more detrimental. They may struggle with comparing others’ photos, highlights, and content to their own everyday normal. Frequently, that steals joy and leads to high levels of overall dissatisfaction.
Heavy social media use often causes people to believe that other people feel greater levels of happiness than they do. Teens may, however, note that this reverses when they spend time with friends in person.
6. Teens May Prove More Likely to Post Damaging Content.
Today’s teens have grown up in an online society. They spent a great deal of their time sharing content online, including very personal details and stories. In the future, that content may prove very embarrassing. It may even work against them in a professional context since future employers may see much of that content, whether teens provide them with access to their private accounts or not.
Due to their highly impulsive natures, teens may share sensitive, explicit, or dangerous content, including information about illegal or dangerous activities, without thinking about it. They may also share private contact information with people they have met only online without taking the time to screen potential contacts properly.
7. Nighttime Social Media Use Can Interfere With Sleep.
Teens often log into social media once they get home from school and may remain on those platforms throughout the evening. In any case, those social media habits can lead to significant sleep disruptions.
Unfortunately, many teens struggle with insomnia and sleep disruptions anyway, partly because they have a later sleep cycle than most adults. Social media use can make it harder to put down a phone, with teens always intending to read “just one more post” or scroll for just one more minute, then struggling to actually turn the phone off and get some sleep. Blue light from the phone can also interfere with sleep cycles and make it more difficult for teens to get the rest they need.
Social media use can also leave teens upset just as they head off to bed, making it more difficult for them to fall asleep. Whirling thoughts and distress can make it hard to fall asleep and rest well at night.
Those sleep problems can, in turn, lead to poorer mental health outcomes. Teens who do not get adequate sleep may suffer from an increased risk of anxiety and depression, as well as a number of other devastating mental health disorders.
What the Seattle Public School System Wants From Social Media Companies
The Seattle school districts involved in the lawsuit do not want to shut down social media platforms altogether, and the districts understand that they cannot shut teens off of them completely. They do, however, want to decrease the damaging impact that social media may have on their young people. The districts note that over the last few years, they have seen a substantial decline in teen mental health. Teens suffer from higher levels of depression and anxiety and may act out more violently than they did in the past.
Social media giants may have a few different options for decreasing those damaging impacts.
1. Platforms Can Control or Limit Use.
The platforms might choose to limit how often teens can actually log into those platforms, including shutting down social media or issuing warnings at the times when teens might need to log off. While teens may find strategies that will allow them to work around those limitations, social media platforms can help decrease excessive use with those limits.
2. Platforms Can Provide More Information About Potential Dangers.
Often, teens struggle to recognize the dangers of social media and the impact it may have on them over time. By warning teens about the potential risks of overuse, including warnings when they exceed a certain amount of time on social media, platforms may offer better insight into their impact on teen users. Better information can help teens make more informed decisions, which may help put them in a better position to avoid damaging mental health impacts on teen users.
3. Platforms Can Institute More Careful Monitoring for Bullying and Other Negative Behaviors.
By carefully monitoring the behavior of their users, those platforms can get a better handle on potential bullying. In many cases, that may mean that the platform can act to prevent further bullying, including shutting down users who attempt to bully others.
The Seattle school districts involved in the lawsuit have not offered specific demands on how social media giants should handle the detrimental impact they have had on student mental health. However, they insist on the necessity of change and the need to move forward with a new, different strategy.