It turns out the kids hooked on social media aren’t all right. We’ll have to wait and see about Google’s fate.
Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has disappointed investors who wanted more but has still announced fourth-quarter earnings of $76.05 billion. And yet, Google finds itself somewhat beleaguered. Earnings are down. Some 12,000 employees are getting laid off. And then there are the legal problems. The Department of Justice is pursuing two anti-trust actions against Google. The Supreme Court is about to hear Gonzalez v Google, a case in which Gonzalez alleges that Google’s You Tube subsidiary enabled ISIS to recruit and radicalize people for a fatal terrorist attack in Paris.
And the Seattle Public Schools (SPS) are suing it, too. SPS has sued all the social media biggies, including Facebook and its parent Meta, Tik Tok, the parent of SnapChat, You Tube and its parents Google and Alphabet, and various other owners and subsidiaries. The charge: allegedly harming students’ mental health and forcing the school district to hire and train people to deal with kids’ mental health problems
SPS – joined now by the Kent School District (which makes for a tiny coalition of the willing) – wants the big platform’s use of algorithms that target kids to be declared a public nuisance, and has demanded actual and compensatory damages, plus money to pay for “prevention education and treatment for excessive and problem media” going forward. SPS has filed its complaint in U.S. District Court, and it clearly is a long shot, possibly Quixotic.
Until now, the platform oligopoly has been somewhat vulnerable to political pressure but pretty well immune from lawsuits. Section 230 of the Federal Communications Decency Act absolves the companies from liability for content posted on their sites by third parties. The platforms are simply bulletin boards, legally, so third parties can stick on anything they like. But the further legal question is: Can the companies use algorithms that, in effect, let them grab people by the arm and say, look at this? Is that protected, too? SPS hopes not.
We’ll see how the Supreme Court rules in Gonzalez. Two lower courts have dismissed the case, so what SCOTUS rules may have a bearing on SPS’ long-term chances. The question before the justices: “Whether Section 230(c)(1) of the Communications Decency Act immunizes interactive computer services when they make targeted recommendations of information provided by another information content provider, or only limits the liability of interactive computer services when they engage in traditional editorial functions (such as deciding whether to display or withdraw) with regard to such information.”
For now – although some people argue the courts have enabled 230 to go too far — it’s the law. SPS hasn’t challenged that law. Rather, the school district has tried to find a way around it.
The Seattle district’s basic argument is simple: By using algorithms that draw kids to the platforms more frequently and more addictively, the companies have fueled an appalling rise in kids’ mental-health problems and feelings of sadness. Those problems have forced the schools to pay for counselors, psychologists, nurses, staff training. The schools therefore want a court order that will force the companies to stop doing what they’re doing – and to pay up.
The district employs a lot of professionals already, the complaint says, but it “cannot keep up with the increased need mental-health services because of the youth mental-health crisis. ‘The waitlists for mental-health services were ‘astronomical’ according to a counselor at Ingraham High School.
“As a result, the rest of Plaintiff’s staff must fill in the cracks to help students with mental-health concerns. JoLynn Berge, who was Plaintiff’s assistant superintendent for business and finance at the time, observed that ‘all of our school staff are addressing mental-health needs every day.’ Simply put, Plaintiff has ‘so many students in crisis.’”
Even before the pandemic, the numbers on juvenile mental-health problems were startling. “From 2009–19,” the SPS complaint observes, “the rate of high school students who reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40 percent (to one out of every three kids). The share of kids seriously considering attempting suicide increased by 36 percent, and the share creating a suicide plan increased by 44 percent. From 2007 to 2019, suicide rates among youth ages 10–24 in the United States increased by 57 percent. By 2018, suicide was the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10–24. From 2007 to 2016, emergency room visits for youth ages 5–17 rose 117 percent for anxiety disorders, 44 percent for mood disorders, and 40 percent for attention disorders.”
What do social media have to do with all that? Social-media use “is associated with depressive symptoms among adolescents because it encourages unhealthy social comparison and feedback seeking behaviors,” the SPS complaint says. “Because adolescents spend a majority of their time on social media looking at other users’ profiles and photos, they are likely to engage in negative comparisons with their peers. Specifically, adolescents are likely to engage in harmful upward comparisons with others they perceive to be more popular.”
These aren’t entirely novel ideas: Five years ago, Romeo Vitelli wrote in Psychology Today that “adolescents can . . . develop a psychological dependence on online activities. When their access to the Internet is cut off for any reason, they can experience a form of withdrawal as well as being unable to function normally without regular online contact. Researchers have also linked compulsive Internet use to a range of mental health concerns including low self-esteem, loneliness, depression, social phobia, and suicidal thoughts.”
In addition, the SPS complaint argues,“[s]ocial-media use has . . . caused an increase in cyberbullying. The more time an individual, especially males, spend on social media, the more likely they are to commit acts of cyberbullying.”
Virtually all U.S. public school systems have underfunded counselors, nurses, and psychologists — although the ACLU noted in 2019 many have found money to put cops in the buildings. The civil-rights organization said that the “glaring deficit of mental-health staff in schools is inexcusable.” It suggested that according to federal data, “the real crisis of schools isn’t violence but a broad failure to hire enough support staff to serve students’ mental-health needs.”
Blaming social media is an old story. Peter Sicui writes in Forbes that it “harkens back to past attempts to lay the blame for societal problems on the latest craze. Before social media, it was video games, and before that, it was movies, heavy metal music, Dungeons & Dragons, comic books, jazz music, and even written novels. Every generation wants to hold the latest big thing at fault.”
Which doesn’t get the latest big thing off the hook. Algorithms – which for the platforms are all about the money — have been blamed not only for students’ mental-health problems and terrorist operations, but also for the financial pressure on independent newspapers. “The first brilliant idea Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page had,” Colorado Congressman Ken Buck has written, “was to ‘crawl’ . . . the World Wide Web. . . . [I]t would copy what it found, create vast databases of web content, and then ‘index’ that content, evaluating it for relevancy against search queries. The logic rules driving those relevance evaluations are known as the Google algorithm. . . . Google then launched its business using other sites’ content. And one of the primary reliable content creators is newspapers.
“In 2018, Google earned an estimated $4.7 billion by including links to newspaper articles in its search results, according to a study by the News Media Alliance. . . . According to the study, news articles represented 40 percent of the links on search results. Despite that, Google did not pay a single cent to newspaper publishers for displaying their content and providing links to their stories.”
In the case of algorithms targeting kids, SPS basically argues that the supposedly neutral bulletin board isn’t neutral – it has been configured to attract a certain group, which imposes costs borne by the school district and provides money to the platforms. (Think of this as a physical bulletin board with a portion outlined in neon – of a color found to attract people of a certain age – within which the bulletin board owner sells ads.) It stirs up or amplifies conflict and extreme views, as has been much discussed, and also pushes kids toward making unrealistic comparisons and embracing unrealistic expectations. No wonder the kids feel bad.
Without disputing that social media harm kids, some students have publicly questioned the SPS decision to sue. “We as students in the Seattle Student Union . . . spoke up and said this is what we need,” said Natalya McConnell, a founder of the student group. “We need mental-health counselors in every school to address the mental-health crisis and right now the district took that and said, OK, we’re going to do a lawsuit against social media companies. That’s not what we asked for. We asked for mental-health counselors.”
Well, OK, but somebody has to pay for the counselors. It’s legitimate to ask why dealing with a societal mental-health crisis is the schools’ financial responsibility. This isn’t education; it’s public health. Why doesn’t the state pick up the tab — and file its own suit against those companies?
In the real world, hiring enough new counselors to make a difference either requires even more money from state and local government or cuts in classes or programs. Suing the big guys may be one way to get the funds. But not quickly, and at the significant expense of litigation. Even if SPS wins in district court, this one will be appealed for a long time.
If SPS and other plaintiffs suing the big internet companies prevail – or exert enough political pressure to get a major change in the law – will that spell the end of the Internet as we know it? Would that be such a bad thing?