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Citing worsening teenage mental health, Bucks County officials file lawsuit against major social media companies

Filed in California, the suit seeks financial damages for the county’s rising mental health costs for young people.

(left to right) County Commissioners Diane M. Ellis-Marseglia and Robert J. Harvie Jr, District Attorney Matt Weintraub, Solicitor Joe Khan and County Commissioner Gene DiGirolamo stand during a press conference at the Bucks County Administration Building in Doylestown.
(left to right) County Commissioners Diane M. Ellis-Marseglia and Robert J. Harvie Jr, District Attorney Matt Weintraub, Solicitor Joe Khan and County Commissioner Gene DiGirolamo stand during a press conference at the Bucks County Administration Building in Doylestown.Read moreMonica Herndon / Staff Photographer

In what they call a “David vs. Goliath” challenge, Bucks County officials on Wednesday announced a sweeping lawsuit against major social media companies for triggering a growing mental health crisis among the nation’s teenagers.

“We will protect kids in our county, and we will make them pay for the damage that they’ve done,” Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub said at a news conference.

Filed in California federal court, the civil suit alleges that the companies behind TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and YouTube have worsened conditions such as anxiety and depression among young people through their apps, particularly in Bucks County schools.

Citing social media’s addictive qualities and role in inspiring negative self-image, the suit demands accountability and unspecified financial damages for the rising costs of mental health services the county offers to young people.

Weintraub and Bucks commissioners consider their suit to be the first instance of a county government taking aim at Silicon Valley for its role in what the U.S. surgeon general deemed a youth crisis last year.

“We want teens to be safe online,” said Liza Crenshaw, a spokesperson for Meta. Crenshaw outlined various tools the company offers teens and their parents, including usage limits that parents can control and notifications to take regular breaks from scrolling. Crenshaw added that the company moderates for content related to suicide, self-harm, and eating disorders. A spokesperson for TikTok in an email described similar safeguards.

A spokesperson for Snap Inc. said the company works with leading mental health organizations on Snapchat’s in-apps tools. In 2020, the company launched a feature that connects at-risk users to mental health resources, and parents have the option to monitor their teens’ friends list without revealing the substance of their conversations.

According to statistics from Bucks County schools, teenagers are mentally worse off now than they were prior to the pandemic.

A 2022 survey found that 34% of the area’s school-age youth were at risk for moderate to severe depression, with similar rates reported for anxiety. Meanwhile, more than 25% of students reported a history of suicidal ideation.

Those figures come on the heels of a national focus on Instagram, whose parent company, Meta, reportedly knew about their app’s link to poor mental health and self-image among young women, a demographic reporting unprecedented rates of sadness.

That’s led Bucks County officials to describe a “literal and figurative line out the door” at the county’s social services agencies, which cater to young people with in-school counseling, outpatient and family-based therapy, and mobile crisis units. Schools have also had to cover costs of mental health training for staff.

While officials stressed the financial burden of expanding these programs, they did not provide direct figures on their cost to the county when asked.

“Up until now, those services have been footed by the taxpayers of Bucks County,” said County Solicitor Joe Khan. “Today this lawsuit is going to put a change to that.”

Assisted by a San Francisco law firm, the county brings a litany of claims. In the 104-page document, they argue companies were complicit in keeping young people online “almost constantly” using algorithms that target dopamine responses in the brain, leading to disrupted attention during classes and poor sleep.

The county also alleges companies violated Pennsylvania consumer protection and unfair trade laws by marketing their products to young people and selling their data to advertisers.

Officials even link violent teenage behavior to social media. They cite the 2022 arrest of a 15-year-old Bucks County teen, who threatened to “shoot up” Central Bucks High School West on Snapchat and later used TikTok to spread videos of mass shootings among students.

Social media’s virality also came under fire, including the 2021 TikTok “devious licks challenge where Bucks County students damaged school property after being encouraged to tear bathroom equipment from their fixtures. A separate challenge saw teens shooting a 10-year-old child with water beads in the face, along with a delivery driver.

Data concerns are repeatedly mentioned, particularly following a directive from the federal government that its employees delete TikTok from their phones due to connections between ByteDance, the app’s parent company, and the Chinese government.

Bucks County officials said Wednesday it was barring employees from using TikTok on county devices. Geopolitical conflicts aside, they argued that selling underage users’ data violates a 1998 child protection law.

The officials were asked whether the responsibility of moderating teenagers’ social media use should instead fall on parents.

According to Commissioner Robert Harvie, parents want to address their children’s social media use but don’t know where to turn.

Trust in social media companies to moderate their content for minors is thin, with Pew Research finding that nearly half of parents reported their children were shown inappropriate content on YouTube, often through the companies’ murky algorithms.

“This is the first group of young people to go through this situation, so all of this is new [to parents],” Harvie said. “It’s sort of like the first generation when tobacco became known to be so harmful. You have to have information in order to be a parent, and in many ways, the information has been shielded.”