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Insults, harassment and meanness are hardly new among students, but they’ve intensified with the forward march of social media. While it’s heightened the emotional costs, it’s come with an escalating financial price. That’s why the Howard County Board of Education is among the latest entities to sue Meta, Google, ByteDance and Snap Inc., alleging that they’re targeting students and taking advantage of their emotional immaturity, lack of impulse control, and psychological resiliency.

While the Howard BOE is roughly the 100th school system nationwide to file suit, it’s uncertain what will happen, as social media companies point out their right to free speech ― while knowing that their business models have resulted in massive addiction.

Not stopping

The lawsuits filed around the country were consolidated into one case, Re: Social Media Adolescent Addiction/Personal Injury Products Liability Litigation, last fall in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. Matt Legg, an attorney at Baird Mandalas Brockstedt & Federico, who is representing the Howard school board, said his firm “is still gathering data on this issue, which initially surfaced in the late ’00s.

“It started expanding around 2012, has mushroomed since and doesn’t look like it’s stopping,” said Legg.

That’s complicating the problem for those affected. “That’s why the Howard BOE is playing a lead role in this movement among the 13,000 school boards across the U.S.,” he said. “It’s expensive to spend resources on more mental health professionals and the costs are just going up.”

Legg likened the suit to the Juul e-vape case, though in that situation, rules were already in place concerning the promotion of smoking.

“In that case, school boards also filed suits and made Juul change its behavior,” he said. “We want a similar outcome that puts the school boards in position to create rules for social media companies and then replenish their funding so they can address the problem as it continues.”

No constraints

The shame of what’s transpired, said Jui Ramaprasad, associate professor at the Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland College Park, “is that once-meaningful social engagement has turned negative.

“Like any business, social media companies want to make money and many do it through advertising. With a newspaper, content is curated,” said Ramaprasad. “However, when users are involved in creating content and there isn’t as much gatekeeping, it can often be negative or hateful. That draws more attention and drives up the advertising revenue.”

So as social media platforms have grown, “It’s become a whole new ballgame,” she said. “It’s not just about bullying moving online. In previous generations, the issues stayed at school; now the kids bring it home (on their devices). And it can even be about people idealizing exercising habits, for instance, and everything looking perfect to a viewer who has an eating disorder.”

Ramaprasad acknowledged research “that illustrates how the platforms negatively impact mental health and usually don’t offer much in the way of a guardrail, because social media companies perceive it to be at odds with their business plan. However, in my view, Howard County hit the issue right on the head, because these mental issues are real.”

She also noted attending a recent conference where a social media executive was discussing algorithmic bias.

“He said mitigating the amount of content would constrain revenue generation,” Ramaprasad said. “However, he added that the company would consider some restraint if there were some external policies in place.”

Juul cases

Robert Hachiya, associate professor in the College of Education at Kansas State University, also said the lawsuit has credence “because schools have three functions: to educate, to address emotional needs and to keep students and faculty safe. But doing so is, more frequently, coming down to money.

“The costs have increased during the past several years in all three areas in the form of time and personnel,” said Hachiya. “The school systems pointing at the social media companies’ use of their algorithms work for proof of their responsibility; but the social media companies say otherwise and cite various factors, such as lack of parental supervision, the stress of COVID-19,” etc.

The difference between the social media case and the Juul cases “was that the smoking industry had rules,” he said. “Vaping was being packaged like candy to target youngsters, in a similar fashion to the Joe Camel ads in the late ’80s. But Juul stopped its approach and has been paying settlements.

“But that’s the challenge,” he said. “It’s harder to prove that a suicide, for instance, happens just due to social media.”

Issue raised

Still, going forward, Hachiya is optimistic.

“More school systems are getting involved and I think, eventually, there will be new parameters,” he said. “If all of those social media companies pay settlements, they won’t stop operating their business, they’ll just alter their approach.”

Sharing that view is Jeanne Surface, professor of educational leadership at the University of Nebraska Omaha, who knows it won’t be easy, simply due to the various angles of the story, which include “taking money from schools, the long-term effects on children, the public nuisance,” etc.

“That’s not a cohesive game plan,” Surface said, “so that could be a problem in winning the case,” which she noted will be at the appellate level and could reach the Supreme Court.

So more jurisdictions “pressing the button will hopefully lead to greater cohesion, with the goal being class action settlements. One approach that was mentioned was to update the Communications Decency Act to create some boundaries,” she said, “but that wouldn’t be an end-all.”

But what is needed, Surface said, is “an interruption.

“If the social media companies know that their algorithms are addictive, they need to act, like the cigarette companies did. This does have to do with freedom of speech, so they will need to buck up and admit they’re part of the problem and do something about it.”