New York City Sues Social Media Firms Over Youth Mental Health

A number of social media firms are being sued in the United States, over allegations their platforms are responsible for an increase in mental health issues among young people

New York City announced it has filed a lawsuit against against ByteDance (TikTok), Instagram, Meta Platforms (Facebook), Snapchat and Google (YouTube) alleges these social media platforms are designed to exploit young users’ mental health and cost the city $100 million in related health programs and services each year.

It comes after Meta in October 2023 was sued by dozens of US states, alleging Instagram and Facebook were harming children’s mental health.

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Lawsuit allegations

But now New York City has begun its own legal action against big name social media firms.

“New York City, like other parts of this nation, is battling an unprecedented mental health crisis among its youth and serious disruption to the public health, fueled by Defendants’ creation and promotion of addictive and dangerous social media platforms,” the lawsuit alleges.

“Youth are now addicted to Defendants’ platforms in droves, resulting in substantial interference with school district operations and imposing a large burden on cities, school districts and public hospital systems that provide mental health services to youth,” the lawsuit alleged.

The lawsuit alleges that the social networking firms are “borrowing heavily from the behavioral and neurobiological techniques used in slot machines and exploited by the cigarette industry,” and the firms “deliberately embedded in their platforms an array of design features aimed at maximising youth engagement to drive advertising revenue.”

The lawsuit comes shortly after executives from social media platforms faced tough questions from US lawmakers during the latest congressional hearings over how their platforms may direct younger users – and particularly teenage girls – to harmful content, damaging their mental health and body image.

Monetary damages

And social media firms in the US are also reportedly facing a growing number of lawsuits from families, over the alleged impact on the mental health of their children.

New York City spends more than $100 million on youth mental health programs and services each year.

To help address this ongoing crisis and the harm caused by these platforms, New York City Mayor Eric Adams has also released a social media action plan, “New York City’s Role in the National Crisis of Social Media and Youth Mental Health: Framework for Action,” to hold social media companies accountable, provide education and support to young people and families, and study the long-term impacts of social media on youth.

New York City said it is seeking monetary damages and equitable relief to fund prevention education and mental health treatment.

Social media response

A Snap spokesperson told CNN the platform was “intentionally designed to be different from traditional social media” with a focus on helping users communicate with close friends and by opening up directly to the camera rather than a feed of content.

“While we will always have more work to do, we feel good about the role Snapchat plays in helping close friends feel connected, happy and prepared as they face the many challenges of adolescence,” the spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, Meta Platform said it offers more than 30 tools and features to support them and their parents.

“We’ve spent a decade working on these issues and hiring people who have dedicated their careers to keeping young people safe and supported online,” a spokesperson was quoted by CNN as saying.

TikTok and YouTube did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

It remains to be seen what chance this lawsuit has, due to the federal law called “Section 230,” which holds that tech companies cannot be held liable for the content that users post to their platforms.

Parental concerns

Social media firms have over the years faced many allegations that its services and platforms are not good for children. Parents continue to be concerned about the amount of time children are glued to their screens.

Cases such as 14-year-old Molly Russell in the UK, who took her own life after viewing self-harm images on Instagram, only increased concerns about online content.

But are social media firms responsible, and should not parents take a strong role in governing the usage of social media among their offspring?

In the UK in 2019 the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) found that there was “not enough evidence to confirm that screen time was in itself harmful to child health at any age.”

Also in 2019 a study by Oxford University found the amount of time that teenagers spent on social media has a tiny impact on their life satisfaction. It concluded that “social media use is not, in and of itself, a strong predictor of life satisfaction across the adolescent population.”

Instead it said that social media effects “are nuanced, small at best, reciprocal over time, gender specific, and contingent on analytic methods.”

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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Tom Jowitt