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Why 2 Seattle area school districts are suing 5 social media companies


Two Seattle-area school districts are taking social media companies to court. They accuse them of harming students' social, emotional and mental health. Eilis O’Neill from member station KUOW reports.

EILIS O’NEILL, BYLINE: All through high school, Delaney Ruston's daughter Tessa struggled with clinical depression, and being on social media made it worse when she saw photos of her peers out doing things.

DELANEY RUSTON: She could spiral into a worse mood and feel worse about herself.

O’NEILL: Ruston is a doctor and the maker of two documentaries about the effect of screens and social media on teens. Her kids went to a public high school in north Seattle.

RUSTON: Tessa's struggle with depression was by far the hardest thing that I've gone through in my life - and seeing her pain and knowing that I couldn't protect her from everything that was happening in screens.

O’NEILL: Reston says, these days, learning how to manage a phone is part of growing up. Now, Seattle Public Schools and a nearby district are suing the companies behind Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and YouTube. The lawsuit alleges that these companies market to teens and then design algorithms that hold their attention and increase the risk of anxiety, depression, cyberbullying and eating disorders.

ELIZABETH DEXTER-MAZZA: They're using our brain science to keep us engaged.

O’NEILL: Elizabeth Dexter-Mazza is a clinical psychologist and the parent of two teens and a preteen.

DEXTER-MAZZA: Which keeps us disengaged from things in real life and exacerbates depression and suicide ideation and behaviors in teens.

O’NEILL: Dexter-Mazza says the social isolation of the pandemic, together with social media, have worsened young people's mental health.

DEXTER-MAZZA: The general like feature where somebody posts something and then they're waiting for acknowledgement really can impact people's self-esteem.

O’NEILL: The Seattle School District declined to comment for this story. But the Washington state school superintendent, Chris Reykdal, says the effect of social media on young people is a critical issue.

CHRIS REYKDAL: No one can continue to tell us that social media has the power of educating, power of advancing knowledge, the ability to inquire, to connect with people - you can't just sell the positives of it without recognizing that some of the darkest things students see are on there. And that, too, has impact and influence.

O’NEILL: The lawsuit states that schools have borne the cost. They've had to hire more counselors, train teachers to recognize the mental health needs of their students and educate students about the dangers of social media. The companies declined to be interviewed for this story but said in statements that they've taken steps to keep young people safe on their platforms. Meta, for example, says Instagram checks users' ages and allows parental supervision of young people's accounts. Back in north Seattle, Delaney Ruston has a photo of her daughter Tessa in her office.

RUSTON: This is her dancing.

O’NEILL: Ruston says her daughter had loved dancing since she was 5. But during her depression, getting to class was a struggle.

RUSTON: I just remember many times her crying and saying - in some of the depth of her depression, not wanting to go. And yet when she would go, 8 out of 10 times, she'd say, I'm so glad, Mom, you pushed me to get to my class.

O’NEILL: Getting off of screens, getting exercise and being in person with her friends - that was what she needed.

RUSTON: Making sure that we worked together to have screen time limits - having those limits is really love.

O’NEILL: Ruston says, though she's not sure the current lawsuit is the best way to get there, she really does hope the schools fully fund mental health.

For NPR News, I'm Eilis O'Neill in Seattle.


FADEL: If you or someone you know might be considering suicide or is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Year started with KUOW: 2017