The Impact of Social Media on Children and Youth (Part 3)

The headline startled me: Seattle Public Schools Sue Social Media Companies for Allegedly Harming Students’ Mental Health*

“Seattle’s public school system filed a lawsuit on [January 10, 2023] against several Big Tech companies [Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, and YouTube] alleging their platforms have a negative impact on students’ mental health and claiming that has impeded the ability of its schools “to fulfill its educational mission.”

Why startled? Because no school district had ever sued a social media company. I would have expected parents of a few students would have banded together, hired a lawyer, and sued as did Black families in Topeka (KN) protesting segregated schools in 1954. As far as I know, no Seattle families have yet brought suit. The school district with over 50,000 students took the leap.

What do the Seattle schools want from these companies?

According to the complaint:

The goal is not to eliminate social media, but to change how these companies operate and force them to take responsibility. We are asking these popular companies to maximize their efforts to safeguard students, who are their most vulnerable consumers.

There are a few major problems with the legal action (disclosure: I am not a lawyer but an informed observer of educational lawsuits). First, nailing down the harmful effects of social media on children and youth, given the available science, is impossible. Research on daily use of social media by children and youth is available but assessing its effects, thus far, remains speculative. The most important point about social media is that Facebook, TikTok, et. al. are only a few of the screens children and youth watch. The issue, then, is not only social media but access to all the screens that parents allow their sons and daughters sit in front of.

By screen time, I mean watching television, working at a computer, using a smart phone, and that occasional film that parents take their kids to. Taken altogether, children and youth look at screens for up to seven hours a day. When one considers that children and youth sleep around eight to ten hours a night, go to school for six hours then sit and watch screens for up to three or more hours leaves little time for non-screen activities at home or in the neighborhood.

To make that point, The Center for Disease Control published the following infographics:

While estimates of time spent viewing screens vary, taken altogether, the available evidence is that American children and teens spend many hours looking at screens once they open their eyes in the morning and go to sleep at night. So while articles and books debate social media’s influence, it is wise to consider the larger picture of how much time the young spend in front of screens both in school and at home.

So what should parents do? The available medical advice, given all of the unknowns except for the abundance of time the young watch screens, is that too much time in front of screens can be harmful. Too much screen time can:

  • Make it hard for your child to sleep at night
  • Raise your child’s risk for attention problems, anxiety, and depression
  • Raise your child’s risk for gaining too much weight (obesity)

Current expert recommendations for children and school-age teens viewing screens asks parents to set boundaries:

*Children under age 2 should have no screen time.

*Limit screen time to 1 to 2 hours a day for children over age 2.

Asking parents to set boundaries is surely reasonable since they are legally responsible for their offspring and spend up to 18 hours of each day with their children and teenagers. Just as asking corporate executives at Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, and YouTube to consider children and youth being exposed to materials that make many parents blanch is reasonable. And the companies say they are doing that. They decide what content can go online and what gets taken off free from government oversight. Even more important,under federal law, these platforms cannot now be held responsible for the content that users post.

Congress passed the Communications Decency Act in 1996 that had a section releasing these companies from censoring online speech. Current federal law protects these companies from being sued for language posted on Facebook, Snapchat, et. al. that is libelous or poses real world harm to others. Unless the U.S. Congress steps in to get social media companies to monitor the content published on their platforms, little can be done.

Which brings me back to a second reason for the Seattle Public Schools suing social media companies. Seattle teachers and students have been complaining about how children’s use of social media in and out of school has bad effects upon their students’ mental health. They have pointed to the lack of school psychologists, counselors, and social workers preventing students from access to professionals trained in mental health issues. A professionally trained adult to talk in the building other than their teacher remains an unmet need, they say.

The Seattle Student Union, a newly formed youth activism group, led the charge this past academic year, calling for more mental health specialists — specifically asking for at least one counselor per every 200 students. That’s a tighter ratio than the one recommended by the American School Counselor Association, which suggests one counselor per 250 students.  

Seattle schools have one counselor for every 375 students; the Seattle Student Union has asked for a counselor for every 200 students. A district administrator says that it would take over $16 million to meet the student demand. Such money is unavailable to the district. Worse yet, even if the money became available, no one yet knows whether these professionals would have the wherewithal and knowledge to deal with the fallout from social media use.

The problem of potentially harmful effects of social media use among children and teenagers now involves the federal government, huge corporations, public school staffs and parents. It is a sticky, multifaceted problem with no simple solution.

And chances of the problem going away are nil.


*Thanks to Sondra Cuban for letting me know about Seattle Public schools suing social media companies.


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3 responses to “The Impact of Social Media on Children and Youth (Part 3)

  1. Milbrey W McLaughlin

    Larry, nice piece, perspective/ empirical background. The data on kids’ screen time is stunning…what’s left for the kinds of activities we and our kids grew up with?
    Your essay calls up two pieces in today’s news: 1] the negative intellectual developmental effects of screen time on kids 2 and younger and 2] the largely unexamined/discussed role of social media in the Jan 6th event…and failure for Twitter etc. to take any responsibility for it…
    Interested to know how this Seattle suit plays out…


    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Milbrey for your comment. I appreciate your taking the time to write. The two points you mention are important and, as you say, largely unexamined. One thing is for Congress to change that section of the Communication Decency Act (1996) that allows these huge social media outlets to ignore the content that appears on their platforms. Chances of such action appear slim when you look at the loss of life each year through guns and the Congress leaving regulations, for the most part, to individual states.

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