San Mateo County school officials have filed a lawsuit alleging three major social media companies — YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat — are designed to be purposefully addictive and that the platforms have sparked a mental health crisis among young people.

In the suit filed Monday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, the San Mateo County Board of Education and Superintendent Nancy Magee claim the social media giants designed their products to target youth at the expense of their mental health.

The suit alleges the platforms harm schools, inhibit education, increase absenteeism and are even responsible for physical damage to school property.

“There is hard science behind the claim that social media is fueling a mental health epidemic in school-age children,” Magee said in a news release.

“[S]ocial media companies have ignited a serious mental health crisis through their deployment of artificial intelligence algorithms designed to keep children and teenagers tied to social media programs in unhealthy ways.”

Joseph Cotchett, attorney for the plaintiff

“Every day, schools are dealing with the fallout, which includes distracted students, increased absences, more children diagnosed with ADHD, cyber-bullying that carries into the classroom, and even physical damage to our San Mateo Schools, an example is the vandalism caused by the TikTok so-called ‘Devious Lick Challenge’ at the start of the school year,” Magee said.

One of the lawyers who filed the suit on behalf of the school board compared the tech firms’ behavior to that of “Big Tobacco” regarding allegations that both industries deliberately target and exploit children.

“This case represents one of the most serious issues facing the nation’s students — as outlined in the complaint, social media companies have ignited a serious mental health crisis through their deployment of artificial intelligence algorithms designed to keep children and teenagers tied to social media programs in unhealthy ways,” said Joseph Cotchett of the law firm Cotchett, Pitre and McCarthy.

Negligence by design

The suit alleges the platforms are a public nuisance and that they are negligent in the design and marketing of their products, among other things.

It also claims that the companies engaged in racketeering, conspiracy and unfair business practices.

The plaintiffs are asking that the companies, including Alphabet Inc., XXVI Holdings Inc. and Google LLC — which are related to YouTube — and TikTok owner ByteDance Inc., are held liable for their alleged behavior and ordered to stop “engaging in further actions causing or contributing to the public nuisance.”

They are also asking for monetary damages and for the court to require the defendants to “fund prevention education and treatment for excessive and problematic use of social media.”

The school board’s decision to file the suit is part of an ongoing effort by critics of social media companies to hold them accountable for the perceived damage they do to individuals and society at large.

And as the plaintiff’s news release notes, even President Joe Biden called out the platforms “for the experiment they are running on our children for profit” during his State of the Union Address.

YouTube video

The same companies, along with Facebook and parent company Meta, face a similar lawsuit in Seattle, and on Tuesday Bucks County in Pennsylvania also filed suit.

“When used for good, social media can be an incredible tool for learning, sharing and communicating,” Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub said in a statement on the county’s website.

“Unfortunately, these companies have chosen to pursue childhood addiction as a business model, and to treat the attention of young people as a commodity to be traded,” Weintraub said.

Tech firms respond: There’s an app for that

Representatives for the three platforms named in San Mateo County’s suit didn’t comment directly on the lawsuit itself but emphasized the work they’re doing to keep their products safe.

“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,” said Google spokesperson Jose Castañeda.

“For example, through Family Link, we provide parents with the ability to set reminders, limit screen time and block specific types of content on supervised devices,” Castañeda said.

A Snap spokesperson said the company recently launched an in-app tool that lets parents better monitor their kids’ activity and has conducted anti-bullying campaigns, among other things.

“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.”

A TikTok spokesperson said their platform also has features designed to protect young people, including parental controls and age-restrictions that limit messaging and livestreams, among other things.

Kiley Russell writes primarily for Pagransen on issues related to equity and the environment. A Bay Area native, he has lived most of his life in Oakland. He studied journalism at San Francisco State University, worked for the Associated Press and the former Contra Costa Times, among other outlets. He has covered everything from state legislatures, local governments, federal and state courts, crime, growth and development, political campaigns of various stripes, wildfires and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.