The Bucks County Commissioners and District Attorney have filed a joint suit against several leading social media companies seeking to hold the corporations – and the tech giants behind them – accountable for the harm their platforms have inflicted on the mental health of the county’s children.
Filed Tuesday in federal court in California, the civil complaint alleges the firms running TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat, with platforms designed to encourage youth addiction, are fueling a mental health crisis among young people.
The suit says the social media companies “can and should take measures to stem the tide of the mental health crisis afflicting America’s social media-addicted youth.”
“For too long these companies have exploited developing minds without consequence, exchanging our children’s mental wellbeing for billions of dollars in ad revenue,” said Commissioner Chair Bob Harvie. “The negative effects these platforms have are real, they are serious, they are quantifiable, and they cannot be allowed to continue.”
PHOTO: Bucks County Commissioner Chair Bob Harvie addresses members of the media during a news conference Wednesday, March 15, 2023, when the county Commissioners, Solicitor and District Attorney announced a joint lawsuit against several social media companies.
“Today marks our latest step to hold corporations accountable for egregious misconduct that harms our community,” said County Solicitor Joe Khan. “We are proud to be at the helm of this important litigation and to stand united as a County.”
The complaint alleges that, using mechanics akin to gambling, the platforms manipulate users with “Intermittent Variable Rewards” (IVRs) that deliver addicting shots of dopamine as users browse continuous, algorithmic, personalized streams of content and advertisements. The suit says the platforms make frequent design tweaks aimed at maximizing screen time and promoting excessive, problematic levels of use.
Teenagers are especially vulnerable to these tactics, the suit says, as social media’s “social rewards” feel even more satisfying to the developing adolescent brain. And with more than 90 percent of children 13-17 reporting they use social media, the demographic is a central part of the companies’ business model.
The complaint alleges that with increased social media use has come higher rates of mental distress among children.
“When used for good, social media can be an incredible tool for learning, sharing and communicating,” said District Attorney Matthew D. Weintraub. “Unfortunately, these companies have chosen to pursue childhood addiction as a business model, and to treat the attention of young people as a commodity to be traded.”
PHOTO: Bucks County District Attorney Matthew D. Weintraub speaks to reporters during a news conference Wednesday, March 15, 2023, as county Solicitor Joe Khan looks on.
According to the lawsuit, 51 percent of girls said in 2021 that they experienced “persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness,” up from 36 percent in 2011. The feelings increased among boys from 21 percent to 29 percent during the same period.
In Bucks County, screenings conducted during the 2021-2022 school year found 34 percent of school-aged youth were at risk for moderate-to-severe depression, and 40 percent were at risk for significant anxiety. More than a quarter of school-aged youth had a history of suicide ideation.
While the County funds, offers and supports numerous mental health services for children, teens and families, the systems in place are struggling to keep pace with growing levels of despair among young people.
PHOTO: Bucks County Commissioner Gene DiGirolamo addresses reporters during a news conference Wednesday, March 15, 2023, about the importance of holding social media companies accountable for the damaging effects their products have on the mental health of children.
Simultaneously, the county has seen an uptick in behavioral issues related to social media resulting in commitments of law enforcement resources. In one instance in 2022, a teen boy was arrested for threatening on Snapchat to “shoot up” a high school. In others, children participating in TikTok “challenges” have caused panics, injured people and damaged property.
The County and the DA are represented in this litigation by Robbins Gellar Rudman & Dowd, a leading plaintiffs’ law firm with offices in California and Pennsylvania. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California’s Oakland Division, where the law firm has brought similar actions.
PHOTO: Bucks County Solicitor Joe Khan on Wednesday, March 15, 2023, discusses details of the county's lawsuit against social media companies. Filed jointly with the Bucks County District Attorney, the suit seeks to hold social media companies and the tech giants behind them accountable for the harms their platforms have caused to the mental health of children.
Bucks County appears to be the first county government to join the multi-district legislation.
Click here to read the full 100+ pages of the complaint.
Media Contacts: James O’Malley, 215-348-6414, [email protected]; Manuel Gamiz Jr., 215-348-6298, [email protected]