Montgomery County Public Schools recently joined over 500 other U.S. school districts in a lawsuit against popular social media hubs like the parent companies of Snapchat, TikTok and Facebook alleging they “knowingly cause emotional harm” to students via their platforms. Meanwhile, some parents want the school system to be held accountable for its own continued use of social media.
The lawsuit alleges social media use has caused a “mental and emotional health crisis” among youth and adolescents across the United States marked by “higher proportions of anxiety, depression, thoughts of self-harm, body dissatisfaction, disordered eating behaviors, and low self-esteem among children and students,” according to the Frantz Law Group, who represent the plaintiffs.
“This lawsuit follows on a growing body of scientific research […] that draws a direct line between Defendants’ conscious, intentional design choices and the youth mental health crisis gripping our nation,” the 287-page complaint reads. “Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Snapchat, and YouTube have rewired how our kids think, feel, and behave. While presented as ‘social,’ Defendants’ products have in myriad ways promoted disconnection, disassociation, and a legion of resulting mental and physical harms.”
MoCo360 made multiple unsuccessful attempts to contact the defendants’ attorneys for comment.
In March, the Frantz Law Group filed the suit in Federal District Court in San Francisco on behalf of 16 school districts across the nation. The hundreds of school districts that have since joined the suit include Montgomery County’s neighboring municipalities in Howard and Prince George’s Counties.
Montgomery County parent Lisa Cline has been pushing for the school district to reduce its use of social media since before the COVID-19 pandemic. She works for Boston-based nonprofit Fairplay, an advocacy group lobbying to reduce child-targeted marketing and the “commercialization of childhood.”
Last year Cline led a petition to the U.S. Secretary of Education signed by dozens of organizations, doctors, psychologists and other professionals asking for action to be taken to encourage reduced social media use in schools. Cline said they never received a response.
When Seattle Public Schools first sued the same social media companies over this issue in January, Cline said she reached out to MCPS officials urging them to join the suit but received no response. As she noticed neighboring school districts joining the federal suit in March, she said she reached back out to suggest MCPS join. While she received no response, she said days later MCPS announced it had joined the lawsuit.
“I don’t know if it was because of my letter, but I certainly have championed it,” she said. “I just don’t want children influenced by social media through our school. I don’t think schools should play a role in sucking them down that rabbit hole, and I’m glad they agree now.”
When asked about the school district’s perspective on social media use and its impact on student mental health, spokesperson Jessica Baxter directed MoCo360 to the MCPS social media best practices located on its website.
The best practices do not prohibit staff from using social media to communicate with students or families but emphasize that existing MCPS tools are preferred when possible.
“Only use non-MCPS tools if a different approach is demonstrably necessary,” the guidelines read. “For instance, if teachers would like to communicate with the students in their class, they should use an available MCPS tool; if they want to communicate with the broader school community or engage in professional development online, there may be grounds to use an external social media channel like Twitter or Facebook.”
The school district’s best practices make no explicit mention of any impact social media use could have on student mental health.
Cybersecurity expert and law professor Joel Schwarz, parent of three MCPS students, leads a parent advocacy group called the Student Data Privacy Project (SDPP) with a focus on limiting digital applications used in classrooms. While he said he’s encouraged by MCPS joining the lawsuit, the suit won’t be resolved for years due to its size and the number of parties involved.
As a parent, Schwarz said he’s seen firsthand how often MCPS teachers and staff use social media sites like Twitter and Instagram to communicate with students, including posting school assignments. He said MCPS joining the lawsuit gives parents more leverage to question this use of such sites.
“You’re using the same sites your lawsuit says are causing students harm,” he said. “At the end of the day, the argument is that social media is addictive. It changes the way your brain processes information. So, the last thing we should be doing as a school system is using it to talk to our students. It’s like sponsoring an open bar party for alcoholics.”