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Bucks County sues social media giants for fueling youth mental health crisis

A joint suit has been filed against the firms running TikTok, Facebook and other platforms

Bob Harvie

The Bucks County Commissioners and District Attorney have filed a joint suit against several leading social media companies seeking to hold the corporations — and the tech giants behind them — accountable for the harm their platforms have inflicted on the mental health of the county’s children.

Filed recently in federal count in California, the civil complaint alleges the firms running TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat, with platforms designed to encourage youth addiction, are fueling a mental health crisis among young people.

The suit says the social media companies “can and should take measures to stem the tide of the mental health crisis afflicting America’s social media-addicted youth.”

Commissioner chair Bob Harvie said, “For too long, these companies have exploited developing minds without consequence, exchanging our children’s mental wellbeing for billions of dollars in ad revenue. The negative effects these platforms have are real, they are serious, they are quantifiable and they cannot be allowed to continue.”

County Solicitor Joe Khan said, “Today marks our latest step to hold corporations accountable for egregious misconduct that harms our community. We are proud to be at the helm of this important litigation and to stand united as a county.”

The complaint alleges that, using mechanics akin to gambling, the platforms manipulate users with “Intermittent Variable Rewards” that deliver addictive shots of dopamine as users browse continuous, algorithmic, personalized streams of content and advertisements. The suit says the platforms make frequent design tweaks aimed at maximizing screen time and promoting excessive, problematic levels of use.

Teenagers are especially vulnerable to these tactics, the suit says, as social media’s “social rewards” feel even more satisfying to the developing adolescent brain. And with more than 90 percent of children 13-17 reporting they use social media, the demographic is a central part of the companies’ business models.

The complaint alleges that with increased social media use has come higher rates of mental distress among children.

“When used for good, social media can be an incredible tool for learning, sharing and communicating,” said District Attorney Matthew D. Weintraub. “Unfortunately, these companies have chosen to pursue childhood addiction as a business model, and to treat the attention of young people as a commodity to be traded.”

Matthew D. Weintraub

According to the lawsuit, 51 percent of girls said in 2021 that they experienced “persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness,” up from 36 percent in 2011. The feelings increased among boys from 21 percent to 29 percent during the same period.

In Bucks County, screenings conducted during the 2021-22 school year found 34 percent of school-aged youth were at risk for moderate-to-severe depression, and 40 percent were at risk for significant anxiety. More than a quarter of school-aged youth had a history of suicide ideation.

While the county funds, offers and supports numerous mental health services for children, teens and families, the systems in place are struggling to keep pace with growing levels of despair among young people.

Simultaneously, the county has seen an uptick in behavioral issues related to social media resulting in commitments of law enforcement resources. In one instance in 2022, a teen boy was arrested for threatening on Snapchat to “shoot up” a high school. In others, children participating in TikTok “challenges” have caused panics, injured people and damaged property.

The county and the DA are represented in this litigation by Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd, a leading plaintiffs’ law firm with offices in California and Pennsylvania. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California’s Oakland Division, where the law firm has brought similar actions.

Bucks County appears to be the first county government to join the multi-district legislation. Click here to read the full 100-plus pages of the complaint.

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