The public schools in the city of Seattle (Washington, USA) have been the latest to join an offensive against the big tech companies in defense of student mental health. The city’s school district, the birthplace of companies such as Microsoft or Amazon, began a judicial process on January 6 that seeks to change the ways in which TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, SnapChat and YouTube operate. According to the lawsuit, these platforms exploit the reward system in the brain of young people so that they return again and again to the applications, generating anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. “This mental health crisis has impacted the educational task by absorbing the resources of our schools,” summarized the organization, which includes a hundred centers with nearly 50,000 students.
The lawsuit criticizes the technology companies’ business model, the attention economy, which aims to maximize screen time. “They are based on advertising. The more time users spend on their platforms, the more ads they can sell,” the text says. The argument of school authorities is that young people are more vulnerable to “manipulative behaviors” because their brains are not fully developed to control impulses or have sufficient emotional maturity. This is not to mention the viral challenges that schools have to endure. In 2021, the devil licks invited to vandalize school property. More recently, nurses across the country cared for dozens of children with abdominal pain brought on by the World’s Hottest Potato Challenge.
Critics add that tens of millions of young people across the country have become hooked on the networks. This would have caused the cases of students with panic attacks, depression and other symptoms that have hampered their performance in the classroom and fueled absenteeism to multiply in educational centers, which can lead to substance abuse and dropping out of school. . The schools assist students with mental disorders, but the situation “record cases” requires, according to the plaintiffs, a long-term solution. The complaint demands that the technology companies take charge of the additional resources necessary to attend to this emergency.
This crisis increased between 2010 and 2020, but it worsened with the pandemic. In 2018, suicides became the second cause of death for the population between 10 and 24 years of age in the US, which some studies associate with social networks, although the cause-and-effect link is far from being proven. Among them, two in ten students admitted to having suicidal thoughts that year. In 2020 the figure did not reach 20% in any of the cases. The National Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in late 2021 after seeing a “dramatic increase” in mental health emergency services visits, including suicide attempts.
Kent County, south of Seattle, represents about 25,000 students and has also joined the Seattle lawsuit. In August of last year, the local Council approved a budget of five million dollars to deal with the emergency. They are two of the largest school districts in one of the largest cities in the western part of the country. However, the effort of educators to limit the influence of social networks among students is not limited to this region.
like the tobacco companies
In the US, similar lawsuits are being filed in federal courts up to a hundred, according to Axios. Another similar complaint will be heard next month in the Northern District of California, in which the plaintiffs allege that platforms like Meta’s (Facebook and Instagram) “are designed to maximize screen time, which can encourage addictive behavior.” in adolescents”. “This conduct results in various emotional and physical harm, including death,” they say.
The lawyers pursuing these joint lawsuits in various districts compare their cases to those that brought the tobacco companies to the dock decades ago and, more recently, the drugmakers that sparked the opioid addiction epidemic. That is why they hope to put pressure on the companies to make design changes that improve the conditions of use. An essential question in this case is whether the platforms and their algorithms can be considered products, like a cigarette, and whether the companies are responsible for the damage caused by their design.
The Louisiana government also started the year with a recommendation to school districts and private schools to ban TikTok. In this case, the concern is that the private information of minors remains in the hands of ByteDance, a company that has its base of operations in China. The Democratic-controlled state superintendent has acknowledged that he cannot force schools to adopt the veto. The local Administration, however, has set an example by prohibiting the use of the vertical video application on government equipment. The lawsuit filed in Seattle stresses that their goal is not to “eliminate social media,” but to force them to change their ways of operating.
Last September, the government of California, the most populous state in the country, enacted a law that requires social networks and online companies to offer their privacy policies in a language that is understandable by those under 18 years of age. The regulation, which will take effect on January 1, 2024, prevents the collection of precise geolocation data and prevents companies from obtaining private information that feeds algorithms with content that could cause harm to mental health.
in favor of children
“As the mother of two young girls, I am personally motivated to see Silicon Valley’s most powerful companies redesign their products in favor of the benefit of children,” said Buffy Wicks, the congresswoman who wrote the law. Companies that intentionally violate the new regulations will be fined $7,500 for each minor affected. Tech companies opposed the rule, but a spokeswoman admitted it was an important step in setting industry standards. This Tuesday, Meta announced that from February they will no longer offer advertisers the possibility of choosing reach targets by gender in the adolescent population. Age and geographic location will be the only information available to those who contract advertising.
Congresswoman Wicks based her legislation on a similar rule in the UK that has forced Google to tighten the filters in the SafeSearch function of its search engines. TikTok and Instagram have also disabled the ability for an adult to write to a minor who doesn’t follow them on their platforms.
The changes in the European country have been forced by the harshest reality. The 2017 suicide of 14-year-old Molly Russell sparked a chain of outrage that brought Instagram and Pinterest to the dock last October. This has become the first case in which two technology companies answer for the suicide of a user who suffered from depression. Although the companies did not face any sanctions, the Russell case became yet another example that companies must face the consequences of the use that young people make of their platforms.
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Source: EL PAIS