In a rash of lawsuits filed against social media companies over the last few months, school districts are pointing to big tech’s significant role in the youth mental health crisis.
The latest complaint, filed last week by the board of education and superintendent in San Mateo County, Calif., allege that Snapchat, TikTok, and YouTube use artificial intelligence to knowingly rope in young people, causing dramatic, unparalleled plunges in youth mental health. It cites a February data summary from the Centers for Disease Control showing dramatic increases in violence, suicidal thoughts and behaviors, and other mental-health challenges.
If you’re a parent, how would you describe the effects on your children? Is this an issue you grapple with as a family? If you’re open to talking about it, even anonymously, please email me ([email protected]), as I’m planning to write a story on the topic and would welcome your voice in my coverage of this pressing and timely matter.
But while the lawsuits are new, the impact on youth of social media and time spent online generally is well established: In Sapien Labs’ recent report on abuse and downturns in youth mental health, cyberbullying is identified as a significant source of worsening mental distress among young people. Additionally, data from the latest Mental State of the World Report, also issued by Sapien, underscores a generational deterioration in friendships and family bonds as drivers of that same, steep decline in youth mental health.
All of this seems sadly — tragically — obvious. Earlier generations of children didn’t carry a supercomputer in their pockets connecting them to the internet, with its promise of instant gratification and its threat of emotional manipulation and abuse. Growing up in the late 1960s and 1970s, I certainly didn’t. Yes, bullies loomed in the middle-school lunchroom, but once I was home, I was free. I didn’t face the constant, distracting allure of some invisible but invasive social realm.
When my older kids were in grade school in the early to mid-2000s, they had limited access to computers and the web, but even their one-hour max of daily “screen time” was enough to bring the toxicity of tech platforms to the fore. AOL’s Instant Messenger became the virtual lunchroom. Mean kids ruled. I saw how easily, and devastatingly, social manipulation from a distance can creep into the most intimate corners and affect a child’s peace of mind.
The internet gives bullies free reign, I remember thinking. Little did I know. And little did I realize that even without the bullies, the internet is dangerous territory for anyone’s mental health, particularly youths. With the explosion of social media platforms — and the constant, relentless push to be hip, be cool, be hot — they’re thrown into a relentless virtual coliseum of social stressors, fear, and judgment.
Tech companies aren’t simply creating a forum for youth emotional distress; they’re encouraging it, and they’re making money off it in the process. As Surgeon General Vivek Murthy told The New York Times in a recent interview, “These platforms have been designed to maximize the amount of time people spend on them, not necessarily to maximize how well you spend that time or how supported you are in your development of healthy relationships. Not only are adolescents spending many hours on social media each day, but that is time that they are taking away from sleep, from exercise, from in-person interaction with people, from schoolwork and from other activities that may bring them joy.”
He added: “There’s also the experience that many people have on social media of being exposed to harmful content, and of being immersed in a culture where they are constantly comparing themselves to other peoples’ profiles and posts, which often leads them to feel worse about themselves. This is despite the fact that what you see on social media is not always an accurate reflection of what’s happening.”
In the new lawsuits reported by The Post, Axios, ABC News, and other outlets, school districts from around the country are alleging intent on the part of such tech giants to lure and engage youth. Seattle’s was the first, back in January. In its announcement of the suit, the district argued:
“By marketing to and targeting young people, the companies who own these social media platforms have created digital environments that can negatively affect the mental and emotional health of our students.
We believe that the companies should be held responsible for their actions and the harm they are causing by contributing to the increasing costs that school districts now bear in response to the increasing mental and emotional health needs of students.”
What do you think of all this: the time-consumption, the targeting of youth, the impact on mental health ? What have you seen, in your own life and family? Again, feel free to email me with your thoughts.
-Amy Biancolli, Family Editor
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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.
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