By LINDA CHION KENNEY
Hillsborough has become the 26th school district in Florida to join national litigation that claims students have become addicted to social media and harmed as a result, thanks to the rules and processes of the major social media platforms.
“Social media companies, like Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok, Snapchat and YouTube, have infiltrated our communities and become a fixture in the lives of our children,” says Wagstaff & Cartmell, a Kansas City law firm that is part of the litigation team, in a background report on the national litigation. “Everything about these products, from inadequate age verification measures, insufficient parental controls, endless scrolling (to) constant notifications and targeted algorithms have been designed to addict teen and adolescent users.”
As Hillsborough considers an updated policy on the use of cell phones in schools, the matter of the national social media litigation came up at the Sept. 19 school board meeting, which addressed as well the millions of dollars Hillsborough received and is set to receive in national litigation against e-cigarette makers.
“It’s a very similar situation, where there’s no cost to the district to participate,” said school board attorney Jim Porter, in reference to the national social media litigation. “We would be one of many school districts, and if the litigation is successful, we will receive a portion of whatever funds result in the settlement based on a formula based on the [number of] students and the size of the district.”
The school board at its Sept. 16 meeting, in a unanimous vote, approved Hillsborough’s participation in the national social media litigation.
School board member Lynn Gray, who often speaks about mental health issues, called it a particularly “critical” and “timely” matter, considering the board is set to propose a “wireless update” for schools county-wide.
Consider that “you are a teacher; how do the kids focus?” Gray said. Academically, socially and emotionally, she added, social media usage “is paying a heavy-duty price.”
The national litigation background report contends that social media companies like Meta (Facebook and Instagram), Tik Tok, Snapchat and YouTube/Google “knowingly put young users in harm’s way to generate billions of dollars in profit.” To illustrate, the paper notes that Meta in 2019 generated $69.7 billion from advertising, “more than 98 percent of its total revenue for the year.” And it did so with targeted algorithms, defined as “advanced computer rules and processes to collect and analyze users’ data.”
In turn, the paper notes, “this information is used to assemble virtual files on their users, covering hundreds if not thousands of user-specific data segments.” As a result, “this allows advertisers to tailor advertising and designate advertising dollars to very specific categories of adolescent users.”
Today’s students are the first generation of consumers to grow up primarily in the digital age.
According to the Pew Research Center, 92 percent of American teens are active on social media, and mostly so on Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok, Snapchat and YouTube/Google. Nearly half the teens surveyed (46 percent) said they are online “almost constantly” and 62 percent of youth ages 13 to 18 use social media daily.
Hillsborough, like districts nationwide, has been targeting educational resources to address mental health issues. According to the litigation background paper, mental health issues caused by social media addiction include anxiety, depression, eating disorders, body dysmorphia, attention-deficit disorder (ADD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Also noted are lack of focus, inability to concentrate, self-harm, thoughts of self-harm, suicide, attempted suicide and suicide ideation.
As for making the case that social media is addictive, the paper addresses what happens when users post on social media and the social media platforms use email, text alerts and push notifications to inform the users they have received “likes” or favorable “mentions.” The brain releases dopamine, the body’s “feel-good” hormone, a similar brain conditioning that occurs with addictive drugs, leading the paper to conclude that “like alcohol or drugs, people can become addicted to social media.”