Business Maverick

Business Maverick

Meta sued by its home county over youth social media addiction

Meta sued by its home county over youth social media addiction
The Facebook application on a smartphone arranged in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, US, on 1 February 2023. (Photo: Tiffany Hagler-Geard / Bloomberg)

Meta Platforms Inc was sued by the school board in the company’s home county for allegedly addicting students to its social media platforms and contributing to a mental health crisis.

The San Mateo County Board of Education added the parent company of Facebook and Instagram to a complaint it filed on 13 March against other social media giants, including Google, TikTok and Snap. Meta’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California, is about 6km from the county seat in Redwood City.

The complaint is similar to a first-of-its-kind suit filed in January by the Seattle public school district which alleges the companies designed their platforms to be addictive and to deliver harmful content to children. A handful of other school districts in locales from Florida to Arizona have also lodged suits, as have scores of individual youths and their parents. 

Mark Zuckerberg, the billionaire chief executive officer of Meta, has in the past championed school reform, including a $120-million contribution to San Francisco Bay Area schools almost a decade ago. But the 116-page complaint calls Facebook and Instagram a public nuisance and accuses Meta and the other companies of racketeering, gross negligence, conspiracy and unfair competition.

San Mateo’s board of education says it’s directing “unprecedented resources” to children damaged by excessive screen time, diverting money from traditional teaching goals to address psychological problems that have “no historic analogue”, including rising suicide rates, according to the complaint.

Meta representatives didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. The company has said it offers more than 30 safety tools for kids and families, including supervision and age verification technology.

“The end goal is to make young people engage with and stay on the platforms as long as possible, because that means they can sell more advertising,” according to the suit. The companies “have learned that this is best accomplished by catering an endless flow of the lowest common denominator of content that is most provocative and toxic that they can get away with”.

Issues around social media addiction were highlighted at a Congressional hearing Thursday where TikTok Chief Executive Shou Chew attempted to resist an attempt by US lawmakers and the Biden administration to force the company’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, to sell its shares of the unit or block it in the US.

The parents of a 16-year old boy who died by suicide after using TikTok were present at the hearing. The couple is suing ByteDance, alleging that TikTok sent their son more than 1,000 videos related to suicide, hopelessness and self-harm. BM/DM

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