Pennsylvania County Accuses Tech Giants of Fueling Youth Mental Health Crisis

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Will Young

A Pennsylvania county has filed a lawsuit against social media companies, claiming their platforms have contributed to a youth mental health crisis through addictive technology and harmful targeted content. The Bucks County commissioners and the district attorney jointly filed the lawsuit in a California federal court on March 14 against parent companies of tech giants such as Meta Platforms Inc., Alphabet Inc., TikTok owner ByteDance Ltd., Snap Inc. and their affiliated groups. The lawsuit accuses these companies of violating Pennsylvania’s public nuisance and consumer protection laws and demands a jury trial.

The lawsuit complaint alleges that social media companies manipulate users by hooking them in through algorithmically personalized content and advertisements. The lawsuit states that teenagers are especially vulnerable because their brains are still developing. More than 90% of children aged 13 to 17 report using social media, making teens an important market for tech companies.

The lawsuit follows similar ones filed by Seattle Public Schools, Bay District Schools in Florida, and Mesa Public Schools in Arizona this year. The board of education for San Mateo County, California also filed a lawsuit against tech companies last week. The companies declined to comment on the Bucks County lawsuit and said they have tools in place to prioritize safety and well-being.

The county, which is north of Philadelphia, offers mental health services for children and families, but its systems “are struggling to keep pace with growing levels of despair among young people.” Health screenings in Bucks County during the last school year revealed that 34% of school-aged youth were at risk for moderate-to-severe depression, more than 25% of youth had a history of suicide ideation, and 40% were at risk for significant anxiety.

The lawsuit also notes that youth suicide rates were stable from 2000 to 2007, but increased by 57% in 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, Bucks County reported more behavioral issues related to social media. In 2022, a teen was arrested for threatening on Snapchat to “shoot up” a local high school, and children joining TikTok challenges, such as one encouraging damaging school bathrooms, have injured people and destroyed property.

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TikTok’s CEO, Shou Chew, testified before Congress about online safety, data protection, and whether the app’s ownership by a Chinese tech company poses a national security risk on Thursday. In response to queries about Bucks County’s lawsuit, TikTok pointed out safety measures that let parents monitor children’s content, privacy, and screen time. Snap emphasized it uses human moderation to review user-generated content and offers monitoring tools for parents. Meta has more than 30 safety tools for kids and families, including supervision and age verification technology. Google, which is owned by Alphabet, has features that let parents set reminders, limit screen time, and block specific types of content, as well as policies and safe products for children on YouTube.

However, some advocates say these tools from tech companies are ineffective. Titania Jordan, chief marketing officer at Bark Technologies, an online safety company that offers monitoring software and other products, claimed that “they don’t work.” Jordan pointed out that her teen son can deactivate parental controls offered by social media companies. She predicted that more cities and districts will put pressure on social media companies and demand they put money back into communities that are being harmed.

“We as parents can band together and make tech safer for our kids,” said Jordan. But it will also take government, advocates, companies, and others to create real change, she added.

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