Utah school districts sue social media giants, citing youth harm

Utah is suing Meta and TikTok — and so are 20 Utah school districts.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students work during a class at Butler Middle School on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023. Canyons School District, which includes Butler, joined a growing wave of lawsuits against social media giants last month.

At lunch or between classes, students at Butler Middle School five years ago were allowed to pull out their cellphones.

Conversations there would distract them or spill over into the school day. Safety issues arose when kids would take pictures of other students, make them into a meme — an image that’s intended to be humorous — and circulate them on social media, said then-principal Paula Logan. That led to fights and conflicts, she said.

“We were just noticing that a high number of our behaviors really related to kids and their phones, and the information going back and forth on the phones,” Logan said.

She decided to ban student cellphone use during school hours in 2018 — and saw the school’s environment change. “Even through the pandemic years, we’ve had better focus in our classrooms, kids are on task,” said Logan. “That helped us to continue to move the dial and improve academic outcomes in our building.”

Canyons, which includes Butler Middle School, is among districts in Utah and across the country that are joining a growing wave of lawsuits in federal and state courts against social media giants.

The state of Utah, like other states, has filed its own complaints; Gov. Spencer Cox announced last month that Utah was suing against Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram. Utah is also suing TikTok in a separate complaint; both are filed in 3rd District Court in Salt Lake City. Utah contends the companies have purposefully designed their products to create addictive behaviors in minors, harming their mental and emotional health.

School districts argue in their cases that emotional and mental health issues caused by social media have put a financial strain on schools, as they’re forced to provide extra services to educate affected students.

At least 20 Utah school districts and one Utah charter school have filed or intend to file lawsuits against TikTok, Meta and several other social media companies, including Snap Inc., developer of Snapchat; and YouTube, owned by Google.

Social media impacts learning, federal suit alleges

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students raise their hands during class at Butler Middle School, on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023. The school's former principal banned student cellphone use during school hours in 2018, and said she saw the school’s environment change.

Canyons, where Logan now serves as director of federal and state programs, sued the social media giants last month. The district has spent time and resources developing social media policies for school-issued laptops, for instance, Logan said. The computers block most social media sites even when students are at home, while policies for cellphone use during the school day are left up to each school.

Utah school districts are filing their cases in either state or federal court in California, where judges are coordinating similar claims from across the country. While there isn’t an advantage in joining one legal path over the other, school districts cannot file in both courts.

Salt Lake City and Weber school districts have already joined the federal litigation, according to William Shinoff with California-based Frantz Law Group, which is representing several Utah districts at both the state and federal level. Granite School District also intends to file in federal court, according to district officials.

The core argument of the federal litigation — which has been joined by roughly 700 districts, cities and schools nationwide — centers on the idea that social media companies are aware of the negative effects of their products, yet continue to target youth for profit.

“American youth are facing possibly the most severe mental health crisis in history,” federal complaints filed by Salt Lake City and Weber school districts state. “The major social media platforms ... have spent millions to develop and market their products to minors, keeping them coming back for more, and significantly contributing to this mental health crisis.”

The federal litigation references a report released by the U.S. surgeon general in May, warning that social media use presents a risk to children’s mental health and brain development.

According to the report, roughly 95% of youth ages 13 to 17 use social media platforms, with more than a third saying they use it “almost constantly.” While 13 is typically the minimum age required by social media platforms to use their products, in the U.S., nearly 40% of children ages 8 to 12 use social media, according to the report.

Greater social media use predicted poor sleep, online harassment, poor body image, low self-esteem, and higher depressive symptoms in girls compared to boys, the report said.

The complaints assert that this has led to an increase in young people grappling with anxiety, depression, self-harm ideation and thoughts of suicide. In turn, it affects academic performance and saps the resources of schools as they try to meet students’ needs, according to the complaints.

The federal litigation seeks, in part, damages to “fund prevention education and treatment for excessive and problematic use of social media.”

The school districts “cannot keep up with the increased need for mental health services due to the youth mental health crisis,” the federal complaints state. Each “requires significantly greater and long-term funding to address the nuisance Defendants have created.”

Along with Canyons, Ogden City and North Summit school districts are participating in the state-level litigation, according to Beasley Allen Law Firm attorney Davis Vaughn, whose firm serves as co-lead counsel on that case. They also are representing roughly 100 other school districts nationwide.

The Frantz Law Group is working to file suits in California state court on behalf of 15 other Utah school districts and one charter school. They include Davis, Beaver, Daggett, Duchesne, Juab , Kane, Morgan, Nebo, San Juan, South Sanpete, North Sanpete, Box Elder, Tintic, Wayne and Canyons school districts, along with Canyon Rim Academy.

Meta points to safety features

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Science teacher Erin Hemingway leads her Butler Middle School class in the school motto, using sign language, on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023.

In a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune, a Meta spokesperson said the company hopes to “work with schools and academic experts” to better understand youth mental health and learn how social media can support teens when they need it “in a way that acknowledges the full picture.”

Meta has developed several safety features across its platforms, including age verification technology; removing content that promotes suicide, self-harm or eating disorders; limiting what minors can see; and limiting who can see and find minor-owned accounts, the spokesperson added.

The company also notifies users if they’ve been “scrolling” for too long; prompts users to take breaks; and allows users to customize their feed.

But the federal litigation argues those measures are defective.

Though the litigation against social media companies is still in its early stages, Shinoff said the goal is to obtain more money for school districts than what was awarded through a settlement with JUUL Labs.

The Frantz Law Group represented Canyons and other Utah districts in the suit against JUUL, which argued that the vaping company marketed its e-cigarettes to youth and created a vaping crisis.

Settlement payouts by JUUL have amounted to billions, with Utah slated to receive approximately $8.6 million over the next six years, according to the Utah Department of Commerce.

In March, Utah became the first state to pass laws requiring social media companies to limit minors’ use of their platforms. The laws also block social media companies from implementing a “design or feature” that causes a minor to become addicted. The companies could face fines or lawsuits for violations. Those regulations will begin on March 1, 2024.