School District Sues Social Media for Harm to Mental Health

As a clinical psychologist who frequently works with families, teens, and young adults, I have definitely seen some detrimental effects of social media, in particular TikTok.

In 2021 and 2022, F74, also known as Floor 74, was a TikTok trend that spread like wildfire and claimed to take you to a parallel dimension in your sleep. The purpose of the “challenge” was to survive your trip to another dimension, as failure to do so meant a person would be stranded forever in the parallel dimension. You would wake up, and everyone you loved would be gone. Teenagers, already notoriously bad sleepers, were coming to my office with severe anxiety, fear, and insomnia. They were convinced that something bad would happen if they fell asleep. These were honor roll students at some of the top private schools and school districts in Washington, DC, and they were scared to go to sleep.

Earlier this month, 1/18/23, a landmark lawsuit was filed which alleges that the Seattle school district and its students have been harmed by social media’s negative effects on youth mental health, academic performance, and daily functioning. It could lead to sweeping changes in the industry. Read more: As Seattle schools sue social media companies, legal experts split on potential impact

Seattle Public Schools alleges that the social media companies cited, which include Meta, Google, Snapchat, and ByteDance, the company behind TikTok, designed their platforms intentionally to grow their younger audience bases and exploit the psychology and neurophysiology of their child/adolescent users into spending more and more time on their platforms, according to the complaint filed earlier this month.

There is skepticism that such cases, this being the first of its kind initiated by a huge school system, will be dismissed in court. After all, people do not sue online gambling or pornography websites for their addictions. However, child development and neuropsychological research may prove otherwise.

In the late eighties, Augusta, Georgia family medicine researcher, professor, and physician, Dr. Paul Fischer, first implicated Camel cigarettes, the product of RJ Reynolds tobacco, for their advertising campaign using cartoon depictions of Joe Camel, as holding great appeal for children and teenagers.

In December 1991, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a study in which young children were asked to match brand logos with products. The study showed that for children who were age six, 91.3% matched Joe Camel with Camel cigarettes, nearly the same amount who matched the Disney Channel logo with Mickey Mouse. In the same JAMA volume, another study was published comparing how well Joe Camel was recognized among high school students versus adults over age 21. The study concluded that high school students were more likely to recognize Joe Camel (97.7% vs 72.2%), understand the product being advertised (97.5% vs. 67%), and identity the Camel brand (93.6% vs 57.7%). The research also noted that Camel’s share of smokers under 18 had risen from 0.5% to 32.8% during the cartoon character’s campaign over three years, indicating that it was particularly effective at reaching younger smokers-to-be. After years of expensive legal wrangling funded by the powerful tobacco lobby, RJ Reynolds removed the Joe Camel campaign. [Disclosure, Paul Fischer, MD is my paternal uncle]. See: Joe Camel Cartoons.

The child/adolescent brain, unlike adult brains, is continuing to develop executive functioning: problem-solving, analyzing, self-monitoring, planning and organizing, impulse control, and metacognition skills well into their twenties. As such, decision-making and influence is different for children and teens, when compared to adults. Overuse of social media platforms has a different effect on the developing neural pathways of children and adolescents than it does on adult brains. Whatever the legal outcome(s), recognition that children/teens are not mini-adults is crucial.  Also see: The Dangers of Mini Me.

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Combined with psychoeducational testing, it helps provide comprehensive information and recommendations to help children and teens six and up.

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