New York City sues social media companies, accuses them of contributing to ‘youth mental health crisis’

The city sued the companies behind SnapChat, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok.

ByAaron Katersky

February 14, 2024

The City of New York on Wednesday sued the companies behind SnapChat, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok, accusing them of fomenting a “nationwide youth mental health crisis” by exposing children “to a nonstop stream of harmful content.”

The lawsuit, filed in California Superior Court, alleged the companies intentionally designed their platforms to purposefully manipulate and addict children and teens to social media applications. The lawsuit pointed to the use of algorithms to generate feeds that keep users on the platforms longer and encourage compulsive use.

“Youth are now addicted to Defendants’ platforms in droves, resulting in substantial interference with school district operations and imposing a large burden on cities, school districts and public hospital systems that provide mental health services to youth,” the lawsuit said. “While presented as ‘social,’ Defendants’ platforms have in a myriad of ways promoted disconnection, disassociation, and a legion of resulting mental and physical harms.”

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The lawsuit accused the social media companies of manipulating users by making them feel compelled to respond to one positive action with another positive action.

SnapChat addressed the lawsuit via a statement, denying the allegations.

“Snapchat was intentionally designed to be different from traditional social media, with a focus on helping Snapchatters communicate with their close friends. Snapchat opens directly to a camera – rather than a feed of content that encourages passive scrolling – and has no traditional public likes or comments. While we will always have more work to do, we feel good about the role Snapchat plays in helping close friends feel connected, happy and prepared as they face the many challenges of adolescence,” the statement, provided by Ashley Adams, a spokeswoman for Snap Inc., said.

TikTok also responded to the city’s lawsuit. “TikTok has industry-leading safeguards to support teens’ well-being, including age-restricted features, parental controls, an automatic 60-minute time limit for users under 18, and more. We regularly partner with experts to understand emerging best practices, and will continue to work to keep our community safe by tackling industry-wide challenges,” a TikTok spokesperson said.

Meta, which owns Instagram, stated the safety of teens is a top priority. “We want teens to have safe, age-appropriate experiences online, and we have over 30 tools and features to support them and their parents. We’ve spent a decade working on these issues and hiring people who have dedicated their careers to keeping young people safe and supported online,” a company spokesperson said.

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“Providing young people with a safer, healthier experience online has always been core to our work. In collaboration with youth, mental health and parenting experts, we’ve built services and policies to give young people age-appropriate experiences, and parents robust controls. The allegations in this complaint are simply not true,” said José Castañeda, a Google spokesperson.

“These platforms take advantage of reciprocity by, for example, automatically telling the sender when their message was seen or sending notifications when a message was delivered, encouraging teens to return to the platform again and again, and perpetuating online engagement and immediate responses,” the lawsuit said.

“Over the past decade, we have seen just how addictive and overwhelming the online world can be, exposing our children to a non-stop stream of harmful content and fueling our national youth mental health crisis,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams said. “Our city is built on innovation and technology, but many social media platforms end up endangering our children’s mental health, promoting addiction and encouraging unsafe behavior.”

PHOTO: In this Dec. 19, 2023 file photo, a boy looks at an iPhone screen showing various social media apps in Bath, England.
In this Dec. 19, 2023 file photo, a boy looks at an iPhone screen showing various soc…Show moreMatt Cardy/Getty Images, FILE

The city said it has spent significant resources addressing mental health issues among students and is suing to recoup some of the money.

“NYC Plaintiffs have incurred and will continue to incur costs related to addressing the youth mental health crisis that Defendants created, caused, contributed to and/or maintained. NYC Plaintiffs request relief relating to the damage or injury they have suffered, including actual and compensatory damages in an amount to be determined at trial,” the lawsuit said.

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