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Greece joins school districts suing social media giants over alleged harms to children

This Adobe stock image shows 7 people holding smartphones in a circle.
Mirko Vitali - stock.adobe.com
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210441004
This Adobe stock image shows 7 people holding smartphones in a circle.

The Greece Central School District has joined nationwide litigation that alleges social media apps are to blame for student struggles with mental health and discipline problems that divert resources from education.

Hundreds of school districts have signed on to a federal lawsuit that seeks to hold accountable the parent companies of Facebook and Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, and YouTube.

School districts claim their educators waste time that could be spent teaching on implementing policies to curb social media use and counseling students whose addiction to the apps has led to anxiety, low self-esteem, and suicidal thoughts.

Complicating matters, the lawsuit alleges, is that social media giants use addictive and unethical psychological tactics to hook youngsters on their products.

“They’re well aware of the impact that it’s having, and it has not changed any of their behaviors,” Greece Deputy Superintendent Jeremy Smalline said of social media companies Tuesday during a presentation to the Board of Education about the litigation.

“As a result, our students are becoming addicted to social media and what’s really scary is it's really driving them toward a mental health crisis,” Smalline said.

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The board voted 5-2 to join the lawsuit. The president of the board said in an interview that the members in opposition believed the litigation deflected responsibility to monitor social media use from parents.

Signing on to the litigation costs nothing for school districts, unless monetary damages are awarded, according to the district.

Greece took a similar tack last year when it joined others across the country in lawsuits targeting Juul that claimed the e-cigarette manufacturer was a “public nuisance.” The litigation was eventually settled for $1 billion, and Greece was awarded $250,000.

Seattle Public Schools broke new ground in January when that district became the first to sue social media tech giants under the “public nuisance” argument.

That litigation snowballed, and similar suits have been consolidated in U.S. District Court in California, where the companies are based.

In their motion to dismiss the cases, which was filed in June, the companies argued that they are protected by the federal internet liability shield law known as Section 230. That law, passed by Congress in 1996, states that internet companies generally are not liable for third-party content on their sites.

In May, the U.S. surgeon general warned that a growing body of research suggests social media has a detrimental effect on adolescents, and urged policy makers and tech companies to strengthen their standards for youngsters.

“(T)here are ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents,” the surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, wrote in his advisory.

His advisory noted potential benefits of social media, such as aiding young people in finding community. But it also warned that the developing brains of children and teenagers made them vulnerable to the influences of the technology.

He cited a 2022 Pew Research Center survey that found 95% of teenagers are on social media, and that more than a third of them use one “almost constantly.”

“We are in the middle of a national youth mental health crisis, and I am concerned that social media is an important driver of that crisis — one that we must urgently address,” Murthy wrote.

Christine Baker, the director of student services and school improvement in the Greece Central School District, said the effects of that crisis play out daily in classrooms across the district.

They surface in the form of student altercations, behavioral issues, bullying, and self-loathing. Addressing them, she said, drains th time and resources of schools’ administrative and mental health staffs.

Greece has taken steps to eliminate social media use in schools. Last year, the district began requiring middle school and high school students to store their phones during school hours in tiny pouches, whose magnetized locks cannot be accessed except in designated areas of the schools.

The district also recently rolled out curriculum designed to encourage responsible social media use outside the classroom.

Baker acknowledged, though, that such policies have their limits, in part because the youngsters whom they are meant to protect always seem one step ahead of the adults implementing the policies.

“Really, the kids are teaching us,” Baker said. “. . . We just don’t know everything (about the technology and its effects), and it’s constantly changing on top of that.”

David Andreatta is investigations editor. He joined the WXXI family in 2019 after 11 years with the Democrat and Chronicle, where he was a news columnist and investigative reporter known for covering a range of topics, from the deadly serious to the cheeky.