Social media is in the hot seat, with school districts across the US pursuing legal action against the most popular platforms.

Nearly two years after former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen’s incendiary Senate testimony that the company employed design features harmful to young users to drive growth and profits, the social media titan and its peers are facing legal action contending collectively they are major contributors to the nationwide youth mental health crisis.

More than 100 school districts are suing Facebook parent company Meta, along with the parent companies of Snapchat, TikTok, and YouTube. The suits argue the platform providers knowingly used exploitive design elements to maximise engagement that directly harmed student mental health.

Partial reinforcement and social media

Social media applications use a method known as partial reinforcement which taps into the human need for social validation and interchange. Partial reinforcement offers intermittent substantiation via post or comment interaction. This requires the user to return continuously to the app on an ongoing basis, often leading to addictive behavior. The advertiser-supported apps targeted the youth specifically sought after by their clients, serving up some potentially harmful content around things like extreme weight loss and unregulated supplements

The school districts are arguing that social media use is driving up rates of student anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and suicidal ideation. In the Seattle Public School lawsuit, the district is seeking compensation for costs associated with an increased need for student mental health services.

Legal experts are divided

However, legal observers suggest that the lawsuits are not so much financially-driven as efforts to push the social media providers to make significant design changes to their platforms. And while the wave of lawsuits has been compared to the those levied against big tobacco and the vaping industry, legal experts are divided on whether the suits will have any material impact at all. Anxiety and depression has worsened in recent years, with 11.5% of the youth surveyed in the 2023 Mental Health in America study reporting severe depression. However, the US mental health crisis predates social media. Proving a direct link between social media platform design and deteriorating mental health could be Sisyphean task.

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The social media providers have denied any role in the youth crisis, each reinforcing the efforts they make to ensure the safety of their users including the guidance they give that all users need to be over the age of 13. Instagram and Facebook also both introduced tools for parents to monitor and supervise their childrens’ accounts. Critics question the usefulness of the tools, particularly when both the parents and minors need to opt-in to their use.

These lawsuits may be well intentioned, and perhaps they will increase the discussion around social media misuse. However, the resources would be better spent in educating both children and adults, including teachers and other staff, on the potential harms that come from misuse and overuse. Anything that promotes addiction is inherently problematic but it can potentially be managed with responsible use.