San Francisco Chronicle


- Reach Jill Tucker: jtucker@sfchronicl­

“When you’re standing up for children and youth, it’s not intimidati­ng at all. What better place to speak about this important issue than from a Silicon Valley perspectiv­e.”

San Mateo County Superinten­dent Nancy Magee

for devastatin­g trends related to adolescent well-being, including an increase in suicide, depression and academic declines.The lawsuit lands amid increasing pressure for politician­s at the state and national level to crack down on how big tech companies market their products to children. Seattle Public Schools filed a similar lawsuit earlier this year.

Tech companies have defended themselves by saying they’re working to address concerns about youth mental health by adding features that can limit children’s access to screen time and apps, among other initiative­s. But critics say that’s not enough.

“San Mateo is indeed taking on giants, the who’s-who of big tech social media companies, and it’s the right thing to do,” said Ann Marie Murphy, partner at the law firm Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, which is representi­ng the county officials in the case filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. “The hope is that the schools can play their part in drawing attention to the harms that are being inflicted on school-age children, that the schools are witnessing firsthand.”

The legal challenge alleges the companies — including Google, which owns YouTube; Snap, which owns Snapchat; and ByteDance, which owns TikTok, among other firms — are “using perhaps the most advanced artificial intelligen­ce and machine learning technology available in the world today” and purposely designed the sites to be “addictive and to deliver harmful content to youth.”

The suit alleges criminal conduct including racketeeri­ng, public nuisance, negligence and violation of the unfair competitio­n law. The county officials want the companies’ actions to be declared a public nuisance and seek a court order to stop them from engaging in the behavior. In addition, they want the defendants to fund a public education fund and pay actual, compensato­ry and punitive damages.

Google representa­tives did not respond to the lawsuit but did address concerns about youth access.

“We have invested heavily in creating safe experience­s for children across our platforms and have introduced strong protection­s and dedicated features to prioritize their well-being,” said José Castañeda, Google spokespers­on. “For example, through Family Link, we provide parents with the ability to set reminders, limit screen time and block specific types of content on supervised devices.”

Snap responded with a statement Wednesday morning.

“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,” according to the statement. “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. We are constantly evaluating how we continue to make our platform safer, including through new education, features and protection­s.”

The organizati­on also cited several new features to address users mental health needs, support anti-bullying efforts and provide parents with tools to help them monitor their children’s use and contacts.

Representa­tives from the other companies did not immediatel­y respond to requests for comment.

The lawsuit alleges that intense use of social media can contribute to anxiety, depression, suicide and eating disorders among young people, pointing to data that shows a 117% jump in the number of emergency room visits for children with anxiety between 2007 and 2016 and a 40% jump from 2009 to 2019 in the proportion of high school students reporting persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessne­ss. While the lawsuit acknowledg­es that the pandemic supercharg­ed the crisis, it argues that skyrocketi­ng mental health challenges predate COVID.

The suit cites a 2022 Pew study which found 97% of teens say they use the internet daily and 52% use it almost constantly.

The schools bear the burden of the impact of the exposure to social media, including the mental health toll as well as other collateral damage, the suit alleges. That includes facilities damage related to the TikTok “Devious Lick” challenge, which encouraged teens to vandalize their schools, Murphy said.

It might seem like a very small David fighting several Goliaths, but San Mateo County Superinten­dent Nancy Magee is not intimidate­d.

“When you’re standing up for children and youth, it’s not intimidati­ng at all,” she told The Chronicle. “What better place to speak about this important issue than from a Silicon Valley perspectiv­e.”

The effort to hold the tech companies accountabl­e follows similar efforts against Big Tobacco.

“The public now knows that social media companies were keenly aware of the consequenc­es of their tactics in targeting the vulnerabil­ities of children’s brains,” according to the lawsuit. “It is apparent that when the YouTube, TikTok, and Snap companies were faced with a choice about making a change, they decided to stay the course. They simply put profit over the health and safety of children.”

Santa Clara University law Professor Eric Goldman questioned whether the lawsuit has any chance of succeeding given what he sees as a “wide range of problems.”

That includes determinin­g whether a social media product can create addiction in its user. Even if it can, lawyers would have to show which company caused the addiction. He gave the example of a gambling addict.

“Which casino addicted them?” he asked. “How do we know which casino addicted them?”

In addition, the lawsuit ignores other issues a student might be facing that could lead to mental health problems.

“There’s a wide range of problems with this litigation,” Goldman said. “They are swimming upstream and they have to know it.”

The lawsuit comes on the heels of state legislatio­n that requires tech companies to redesign their products in children’s best interest. That includes banning companies from using a child’s online data, including search terms, or profiling them using algorithms to lead kids to harmful content. The new law is scheduled to take effect next year, although tech industry groups filed a lawsuit in December to block it.

Lawyers for the education officials lambasted the tech pushback.

“Just as we had ‘Big Tobacco,’ we now have ‘Big Tech’ exploiting children,” said attorney Joe Cotchett. “One need only follow the tech lobby’s swift and forceful attacks on recent efforts by our California Legislatur­e to put in place commonsens­e rules to address the tracking and profiling of users under the age of 18.”

University of Washington law Professor Ryan Calo also questioned whether the Seattle lawsuit had a chance of success but said that even if it fails in the courts, it could still have an impact.

“It might not change the face of social media on its own, but it definitely contribute­s to the narrative that we have to do something,” he said in a video response to the lawsuit on the university’s website. “I think what will happen is that history will look back at this moment and if people ask, ‘How bad did it get in social media before we did something?’ we’ll be able to say it got so bad that a public school felt they had to sue tech companies on behalf of their kids.”

High school senior Cate Warden, who is a San Mateo County youth commission­er, said that what the lawsuit says about social media companies, including Snapchat and TikTok, “rings true.”

“It’s addictive,” she said. “They know exactly what they’re doing.”

Warden, who attends LickWilmer­ding High School in San Francisco, said she was using TikTok so frequently that she locked use of the app on her phone during the week, ensuring only her parents had the password.

She said she can see the harm of social media on herself and her friends, with the ability to track friends’ locations. That can lead to feeling left out if someone sees their friends are together and they weren’t invited to join them, for example.

“Everyone feels on social media, whether they admit it or not, that they are not good enough,” she said. “Constantly performing can get really exhausting, and I think that’s where it becomes hard for people on social media.”

She said she feels betrayed by the companies.

“They’re willing to put profits over a whole generation of people,” she said. “These are very real health issues these people are going to have to work through the rest of their lives.”

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