Wake County school board joins lawsuit against social media giants

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Wednesday, February 21, 2024
Wake County school board joins lawsuit against social media giants
The lawsuit is aimed at Meta, Google, TikTok, and Snap to "hold these corporations accountable for exploiting children."

CARY, N.C. (WTVD) -- The Wake County Board of Education voted Tuesday night to join in filing a lawsuit against several social media companies, claiming that the digital giants have played a major role in a mental health crisis affecting students in the state's largest school system and across the country.

The lawsuit is aimed at Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, Google, TikTok, and Snap. Wake County joins 42 state Attorneys General, school systems nationwide and others in the litigation to "hold these corporations accountable for exploiting children."

The lawsuit seeks financial compensation to "alleviate the strain on school resources."

"Through this lawsuit, our board is seeking two outcomes for the benefit of our students. First, we're seeking to push social media platforms to immediately adopt common-sense protections for minors to protect their health and well-being in the future and to end (exploitative) practices that harm students. These companies play a significant role in our society and have a duty to act responsibly in our collective goal to protect young people," said Chris Heagarty, chair of the Wake County Board of Education. "Second, we aim to hold these billion-dollar corporations accountable for their role in creating the need for the resources we've put into addressing a crisis that has severely impacted our students and learning environment. Our ultimate goal is always to provide support and the highest quality education for our students, and this litigation is an important step in doing that."

RELATED: NYC sues social media companies, alleges contribution to 'youth mental health crisis'

In a release, WCPSS said the lawsuit alleges that in Wake County and nationwide, "young people are facing a mental health crisis due to the defendants' social media platforms and advertising-based business models. The algorithms driving these platforms are designed to exploit human psychology in a way comparable to gambling or drug use to manipulate users into staying on the platform as long as possible. Young people are particularly susceptible to this intense addictive quality, and the content they are consuming is often harmful, such as romanticizing eating disorders or encouraging dangerous trends, violence against others, self-harm, or suicide. The Board further alleges that defendants have known about these negative impacts but have continued to prioritize profit over the safety and well-being of children."

"These companies have the ability to enact simple common sense protections of our youth, to take down harmful content but they don't," Heagarty said. "We can't seem to get legislation passed through the federal the federal governments, so we'll have to turn to the judicial system for a remedy."

WCPSS said it and many other districts across North Carolina are struggling to provide sufficient mental health resources to students as rates of depression, anxiety, threats and violence, and suicidal ideation rise.

Social media was also blamed for increases in violent acts in schools.

"There's very little that we can do to help the students that are sitting there in our classroom that could be being victimized, bullied, just bombarded by hurtful, harmful messages, and in some cases, we're seeing the real not just mental but physical harm that's causing these students," Heagarty said. "I'm going to go so far as to say that I think some of these platforms are harmful not just to youth, but to grown adults and members of our society, again, for the same addictive qualities, the algorithms that push destructive or harmful behaviors."

"This promotion of "fight culture" has not only glorified violence and bullying but has directly interfered with the schools' ability to intervene and break up fights as adults must often force themselves through rings of students all filming the violent acts and posting them on social media," the release said. "Through this lawsuit, the Board is seeking specific remedies to address these abusive and exploitive practices as well as the long-term funding required to address this crisis from those responsible rather than continuing to place that burden on taxpayers."

The Wake school board is being represented by Baird Mandalas Brockstedt & Federico, Ward Black Law, and Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, which also represent Charlotte-Mecklenberg County and dozens of other school districts nationwide. The firms are working on a contingency basis, meaning no cost to taxpayers.

"Social media companies deliberately design their platforms to ensnare young users in addictive cycles, exploiting their developing minds for financial gain. When children become addicted to social media and are exposed to harmful content, they are significantly more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, and other severe mental health effects," said Janet Ward Black, an attorney representing WCBOE. "Through this litigation, we aim to compel social media companies to fully acknowledge and address the harms caused by their platforms while also compensating school districts for the resources they have been forced to utilize in mitigating this youth mental health crisis."