NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Leaders in the Clarksville-Montgomery County School District have said enough is enough: social media is harming our teens. The district is suing big tech companies like Snapchat and TikTok.
“Algorithms that are manipulative and harmful”; “substantially contributing to the youth mental health crisis” — these are just a couple of the serious allegations outlined in the 104-page complaint filed against the world’s biggest social media platforms.
“These companies have created an extremely harmful product that is addictive to children specifically,” said William Shinoff, lead attorney, The Frantz Law Group. “We’ve been really impressed by the school systems in Tennessee how they are standing united against these companies on behalf of the children.”
William Shinoff is the lead attorney behind the lawsuit. He is working with more than 900 schools across the U.S., including Clarksville-Montgomery County, on a mass action lawsuit against big tech. He said their products have led to cyberbullying, anxiety, depression, eating disorders and threats on school campuses.
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“There’s a wide array of issues. And the mental health counselors on campus that are dealing with this, whether that be principals or counselors, anything, they all have stories to tell about what they are seeing on campus,” said Shinoff.
The lawsuit has two main goals: First – money, so schools can hire mental health counselors and buy technology that blocks social media on campus. And two – a court order, essentially forcing big tech to make changes like more parental controls and limits to the amount of time teens can spend on social media.
“There are changes that these companies can make. And while it will hurt their bottom line. But we want them to make it safer for children, and we want them to go and provide monetary support to these school districts to deal with the ramifications from the harm that they have created at this point, and not rely on taxpayer dollars to fix the problem that these companies have created.”
Dr. Pamela Wisniewski, with the department of computer science at Vanderbilt University, said that social media is not all bad.
“We need to be careful to not use social media as our societal scapegoat,” said Dr. Wisniewski.
Dr. Wisniewski said these platforms also allow marginalized groups like LGBTQ teens and those on the autism spectrum to connect with their peers. Still, she sees the need for improvements as well. Her researchers are working to create new algorithms that detect cyberbullying and sexual solicitation among teens, instead of banning teens from social media all together.
“If we start shutting down social media and banning TikTok, and not letting our kids be on it because they have to be 18 or older, guess what? They are going to lie about their age; they’re going to get burner phones; they’re going to do things that are outside the parameters. And, that usually puts them in more harm’s way because there are less safety mechanisms in those black-market, back doors,” said Wisniewski.
News 2 reached out to tech companies named in the suit. They declined to comment on the litigation, but their company spokespersons did offer these statements:
Google: “Protecting kids across our platforms has always been core to our work. In collaboration with child development specialists, we have built age-appropriate experiences for kids and families on YouTube, and provide parents with robust controls. The allegations in these complaints are simply not true.”
Snapchat: “Snapchat was designed differently from other social media platforms because nothing is more important to us than the well-being of our community. Our app opens directly to a camera rather than a feed of content that encourages passive scrolling and is primarily used to help real friends communicate. We aren’t an app that encourages perfection or popularity, and we vet all content before it can reach a large audience, which helps protect against the promotion and discovery of potentially harmful material. While we will always have more work to do, we feel good about the role Snapchat plays in helping friends feel connected, informed, happy, and prepared as they face the many challenges of adolescence.”
- Age-restricted features, with limits on direct messaging and livestreams, and private accounts by default for younger teens.
- Default screen time limits and restricted nighttime notifications for teens, screentime management tools, and break reminders.
- TikTok’s parental controls (called Family Pairing) which empower parents with content, privacy, and screentime controls for their teen’s account.
- Access to a range of expert support resources directly from our app, including the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Crisis Textline, and more.
- TikTok’s robust Community Guidelines and enforcement measures to protect our community, and youth in particular.
“Just because you are starting to make change now, doesn’t fix the problem that you have already created,” said Shinoff. “That’s going to take time. And for school districts, it’s going to take money to go and fix those problems.”
Meta did not respond to questions.
As demand for mental health services for children grows in the state, News 2 explores how Tennessee is addressing those needs in a series of special reports: Kids and Mental Health.