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Kenosha and AG Kaul among school districts and states suing social media giants

Kenosha and AG Kaul among school districts and states suing social media giants

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Social media companies are being sued by states and school districts — Wisconsin is no exception.

Kenosha Unified School District is among the schools across the country that are taking aim at companies such as Facebook’s parent, Meta.

States are arguing social media companies are prioritizing profit over the mental well-being of the nation’s students, including those right here in Wisconsin.

Approximately 1,000 school districts across the country, including Kenosha, joined a lawsuit led by the Franz Law Group against TikTok, Facebook, Snapchat and YouTube (owned by Google). The law firm filed the suit in early 2023, pointing to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Youth Behavior Survey showing teen depression is on the rise and the role social media plays in students’ mental health.

According to a Gallup survey of 1,500 teens, a little more than half — 51 percent — report spending at least four hours a day on social media apps, including YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and X (formerly Twitter). That comes to about 4.8 hours per day for the average teen.

The lawsuit claims social media companies use addictive features on their apps to keep teens engaged on their sites and their contribution to the nation’s youth mental health crisis, citing a whistleblower’s report in 2021 that Meta knew the negative impact its platforms had on teens’ mental health but failed to act on them.

The lawsuit, which is currently in the discovery phase, also claims Meta collects data routinely from users under the age of 13 without parental consent, which is against federal law.

“Our goal in this litigation is to not only hold these companies accountable but also obtain the necessary funding for districts for prevention education and mental health services,” Franz Law Group said in a statement.

After the Kenosha School Board voted 8-1 in favor of joining the lawsuit in March 2023, Superintendent Jeffery Weiss said in the meeting minutes that the district needed to get involved “because of the anxiety, depression and thoughts of self-harm, which are perpetrated through social media.”

School districts across the country continue to join the lawsuit. Recently, North Carolina’s largest school district joined the case.

While many legal experts contend the intentions behind the lawsuit are sound, there are challenges that remain.

As previously reported by the Wisconsin Law Journal, Section 230 of the Communications Act makes it unlikely the plaintiffs will prevail when a social media company is named as a defendant, said Kathleen Bartzen Culver, a professor and director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Section 230 promotes free speech by removing incentives for platforms to limit what can be said online, effectively giving legal immunity to the social media giants.

“The protections under the law are so strong. It really prevents platforms from being sued for what is posted on them,” she said. “I can definitely see why the lawsuit was filed. It is similar to what happened with the opioid epidemic — communities are looking to be reimbursed for the costs incurred from problems caused by someone else.”

As for periodic discussions in Congress about changes to Section 230, those will likely focus on content generated by artificial intelligence (AI) versus how the platforms’ algorithms work, Culver said.

While litigation against the platforms may not be successful, Culver said, the lawsuit may raise attention among parents about what is on social media and they may pay more attention to what their children are looking at.

“This may open up more discussions about what kids are seeing on social media and having a discussion with them about it,” she said.

In addition to school districts, 42 state attorney generals, including Wisconsin’s Josh Kaul, have joined the lawsuit, which seeks to have Meta end its practices that violate the law and seeks both financial damages and restitution.

“We must keep our kids safe — and that includes from dangers online,” Kaul said in a statement when Wisconsin was among the first states to join the lawsuit in October 2023.

“Adequate protections should be in place to protect kids from harms associated with social media and parents must receive accurate information about potential dangers to their kids.”

Prior to filing the lawsuit against Meta, Franz Law Group was successful with a lawsuit against JUUL Labs and other vaping companies holding them responsible for youth vaping epidemic. That suit was settled in December 2022 with JUUL agreeing to pay $1.2 billion.


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