The Coronado Unified School District is among 16 districts across the country suing social media companies, alleging they have additive products that harm children's mental health. Illustration by Willem Quigley.

The Coronado Unified School District has joined 15 other districts from around the country to battle the nation’s largest social media companies over whether sites like Meta, Snap, TikTok and YouTube have caused mental health problems for kids.

Coronado in March authorized it legal counsel, F3 Law in collaboration with the Frantz Law Group, to initiate litigation.

Then lawyers on Thursday, April 13, from the Social Media Litigation team said they filed a federal suit in San Francisco, alleging 15 social media companies have addicted millions of minors through exploitative methods, contributing to a youth mental health crisis.

Attorney James P. Frantz said the firm is representing close to 200,000 students from school districts nationwide, including Coronado and Oceanside in San Diego County. 

James Frantz (center) of the Frantz Law Group discusses a lawsuit by the Coronado Unified School District and others against social media companies during a press conference on April 13. Staff photo by Willem Quigley.

The social media firms that responded to The Coronado News said they have taken steps to provide safer features for youth users.

The firm representing Coronado Unified also helped the district receive a $30,000 settlement in a recent anti-vaping case against Juul that included close to 900 other school districts, representing 5 million students.

Seeking funds to fight mental health issues

At the April 13 press conference, the Social Media Litigation team attorneys said school districts are tired and look forward to adequate resources which can help districts deal with children’s mental health issues caused by social media firms.

The complaint seeks to remediate the harms social media firms have caused their students through funds for educational prevention programs that teach youth about the dangers of social media, as well as treatment for excessive and problematic use of social media.

If successful, a formula would determine the allocations from the suit with districts with a smaller population receiving less money, said the litigation team.

Defendants include Meta (which owns Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp), Snap, ByteDance (which owns TikTok), and Google, now considered Alphabet, (which owns YouTube).

Recurring lawsuits

The recent Coronado Unified lawsuit follows other cases with Bayshore Elementary School District in San Mateo County, School District of The Chathams in New Jersey, and Mesa Public Schools in Arizona also filing litigation, records show.

Those lawsuits also allege that social media firms intentionally target children, allowing minors to be susceptible to harms imposed by addictive apps through compulsive usage causing a youth mental health crisis.

Additionally, districts allege that defendants promote defective products that encourage dangerous challenges, which may lead to harmful behavior and consequences among children.

“Manipulative and harmful”

The Coronado Unified complaint says companies like Meta, Snap, TikTok, and YouTube have algorithms that are “manipulative and harmful” for minors that represent a majority of their app users.

According to a 2021 report by the Common Sense Census, there has been a steady increase in screen use since 2015 among 8- to 18-year-olds in the United States, and these numbers increased by 17% for daily screen time since the start of the pandemic.

The Coronado Unified complaint says companies like Meta, Snap, TikTok, and YouTube have algorithms that are “manipulative and harmful” for minors that represent a majority of their app users. Illustration by Willem Quigley.

The report found that children from higher-income households spend less time on screen time entertainment compared to middle and low-income households, although accessibility to computers is less among the latter. And that girls spend less screen time than boys.

Additionally, youth spent less time on social media compared to online videos and video games.

Addiction like gambling

Still, the district complaint alleges that the firms’ apps’ create an addiction to social media, like gambling. 

The complaint references a Harvard University study comparing social media and gambling brain scans, showing similar neural circuits that point to an addictive cycle that traps consumers.

The complaint also considers that social media use leads to personal and collective destructive behavior such as cyberbullying and mental health crisis like anxiety, depression, thoughts of self-harm, and suicidal ideation.

Section 230 at issue

The Coronado Unified lawsuit and others like it will take aim at federal law known as Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.

It states “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

Essentially, the law in most cases has prevented communication providers from being held legally responsible for information they have disseminated from third parties.

Jessica Heldman, Fellmeth-Peterson Associate Professor in Child Rights at the University of San Diego School of Law, considers that win or lose, the lawsuits place vital attention on the issue of how social media can harm children. 

“It is hard to imagine a more important issue related to child health, well-being, and education.”

-Attorney Jessica Heldman on the social media suits.

“It is hard to imagine a more important issue related to child health, well-being, and education,” Heldman told The Coronado News. “Any effort to ensure that children are not targeted by corporations through addictive technologies will improve academic outcomes, as well as overall life outcomes.”

Heldman said increases in depression, self‐harm, and suicide among adolescents parallels a massive increase in the use of social media.

She considers legal claims based on the theory of public nuisance hold promise, which proved successful in the 1990s when states sued big tobacco companies and received billions of dollars.

However, there is no question these lawsuits will be challenging, she said.  

“As young people spend more time on social media, exposed to harmful content that promotes social comparison, eating disorders, and self-harm, schools are dealing with the fallout,” Heldman said.

Heldman said the negative impacts of social media addiction on children cause schools and parents to bear time and resources educating children and repairing the damage done by social media.

“The lawsuits are prompting legislative action in several states as well, which is another strategy for addressing the issue,” Heldman said. “Change is certainly happening.”

Arkansas requiring parents’ OK

Arkansas on April 12, became the second state to restrict social media use by children, as Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders approved legislation requiring minors to get their parents’ permission to create a new account.

The bill signed by the Republican governor requires social media companies to contract with third-party vendors to perform age verification checks on new users. The law will apply to new accounts created starting in September.

“While social media can be a great tool and a wonderful resource, it can have a massive negative impact on our kids,” Sanders said before signing the legislation.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signs a bill requiring age verification before creating a new social media account as Sen. Tyler Dees, R-Siloam Springs, looks on during a signing ceremony on Wednesday, April 12, 2023, at the state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark. (Thomas Metthe/Arkansas Democrat-Gazette via AP)

The proposal is similar to a first-in-the-nation law that Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed last month.

Utah’s law takes effect in March 2024. Several other states are considering similar measures, touted by supporters as a way to protect children.

California last year enacted a law requiring tech companies to put kids’ safety first by barring them from profiling children or using personal information in ways that could harm children physically or mentally.

Social media companies respond

Two social media companies did not comment on the litigation. Instead, they provided general statements about their efforts to ensure a safe user experience on their sites.

The wellbeing of our community is important to us, said Snap in a written statement about continued efforts to evaluate and make their platform safer through new education, features and protections.

Additionally, Snap said it has expanded resources related to anti-bullying and mental health since 2020. 

“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,” the Snap Inc. spokesperson said. “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.”

Two social media companies said they have taken steps to ensure a safer user experience as school districts across the country are suing social media sites, alleging the sites cause mental health problems for kids. Illustration by Willem Quigley.

A Google spokesperson, José Castañeda, said the company has invested heavily in creating safe experiences for children across our platforms by introducing “strong protections and dedicated features” prioritizing well-being. 

Google’s Family Link provides parents the ability to set reminders, limit screen time and block specific types of content on supervised devices, Castañeda said.

ByteDance and Meta did not respond for comment.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Julieta is a reporter for The Coronado News, covering education, small business and investigating the Tijuana/Coronado sewage issue. She graduated from UC Berkeley where she studied English, Spanish, and Journalism. Apart from reporting, Julieta enjoys reading, traveling, and spending quality time with family and friends.

The Coronado News is a 24-hour news website and direct-mail free newspaper to all residents and businesses of Coronado as we cover city government, schools, businesses, entertainment and the Navy.