On Monday, the Dexter Community Schools Board unanimously approved a resolution to join a nationwide lawsuit against several social media giants, including Meta (parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp), Snap, Tik Tok, YouTube and others.

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Earlier this year, Seattle Public Schools and Pittsburgh Public Schools joined the lawsuit, filed in the Northern District of California. The lawsuit is trying to hold social media companies accountable for a youth mental health crisis by designing manipulation algorithms that essentially “depend” on young people, encouraging them to spend long hours on the sites.

Dexter Board Chair Mara Greatorex told Bridge Michigan that the district has also suffered from the spread of viral social media trends, such as one where students rip soap dispensers from walls in classrooms. school baths.

“As a school district, our duty is to keep our children safe,” Greatorex said. “Our duty is to keep our children engaged in the educational setting and when you have these outside forces it is more difficult for us to achieve our goal.”

There are approximately 3,400 students in the Washtenaw County District.

“Even the best parents struggle to help their children become positive social media users,” Superintendent Chris Timmis told Bridge.

He said it would be ideal if the lawsuit could lead to “safeguards” about how social media companies interact with young users.

“The legislature has been unable to put in place protections for our children, someone has to,” he told Bridge on Thursday.

School board member Daniel Alabré said personally, anyone trying to hold social media companies accountable could be bogged down by the companies’ lawyers. He hopes a broad collective effort that includes schools could compel companies to adjust their algorithms and “stop targeting children” in their ads.

As parents and lawmakers have long lamented social media’s influence on young users, Facebook came under intense scrutiny in 2021 when former employee Frances Haugen shared thousands of internal documents. showing that the company’s own research indicated that its products harmed the mental health of adolescents, especially young girls, including leading to unhealthy opinions about body image.

The District of Dexter will work with Frantz Law Group, APLC, the same group representing at least 125 Michigan school districts in a nationwide lawsuit against Juul, the vaping company. The company would only collect money from the district if the district received money from the lawsuit.

The district uses Thrun Law Firm, PC under mandate and this firm referred the district to Frantz Law Group.

There are at least 11 Michigan school districts in Michigan that have signed on to be part of this lawsuit against social media companies, Thrun’s attorney, Piotr Matusiak, told Bridge in an email Thursday. Matusiak declined to name the other districts.

In a letter, law firm Thrun said the parties were seeking past and future damages resulting from the use of social media, including property damage caused by students following social media trends, as well as funding for “counsellors or educational programs” to deal with social media issues. .

“I think once you say ‘it hurts the kids,’ people start to listen,” Greatorex, the chairman of the board, told Bridge.

At the Center for Democracy and Technology, Caitlin Vogus promotes law and policy to support people’s free speech rights on the Internet. She told Bridge that these types of lawsuits raise important questions, including:

How do we deal with the harm that people claim social media companies are doing to young people?

And how do you reconcile this with protecting young people’s access to seek information and express themselves online?

“We also cannot ignore the positive effects this can have,” Vogus said, noting that students often use social media to fight for political change, citing, for example, students leading school walkouts to protest. against armed violence.

Instead of instituting bans on certain social media apps or creating an age verification process, state and federal lawmakers could instead require companies to provide more transparency about how their platforms operate, a said Vogus.

Elise Bruderly, a Dexter mother of two high school juniors and vice president of the school board, said the lawsuit is a way for parents in the community to speak up and resolve their issues with social media.

Personally, Bruderly said she hopes the suit can better protect consumers and influence the design of new products.

She said she tries to establish rules that help her teens navigate social media while creating exit ramps for some of those rules as they approach adulthood.

“They’re going to be 18 next year and it’s my job to teach them how to live with these devices.”

But another Dexter parent said it was up to parents to set guidelines for how young people use social media.

“I understand the concern of educators, but I think that ultimately it is up to parents to set limits for their children when it comes to the use and time spent on social media,” Jennifer said. DeGregorio, mother of a 15-year-old son. said in an email. “Social media isn’t going away, so it’s important to engage kids in other, healthier ways.”

Sarita Schoenebeck, an associate professor of information at the University of Michigan whose research includes the study of online bullying, online design and algorithms, said the issue is complicated.

There is research showing the benefits of social media and other research showing the harms. And it can be difficult to know exactly what people do on social media or how much time they spend there, because the research is based on self-reported data.

“There is such a collective interest from so many different bodies…that it is clear to me that there is enough desire to see more responsibility and accountability in the way social media companies maintain experiments for kids or enable experiments for kids,” Schoenebeck said.

But what those changes would look like is trickier. For example, she said she was concerned about users’ right to privacy if they had to show ID to prove their age.

(Schoenebeck has conducted Meta-funded research in the past and currently conducts Google-funded research.)

Melissa Svastisalee, a Dexter mother of a 16-year-old daughter and an 18-year-old son, supports her district joining the lawsuit. She said some children and teens always seem to be on social media and that could foster a sense of not belonging.

While “kids who are socially grounded, I think they see social media as something fun to do,” she said.

The social media companies targeted by the lawsuit challenge their image as indifferent companies driven solely by profit, saying they are going to great lengths to protect the health of young users.

“We want to reassure all parents that we have their best interests at heart in the work we do to provide teens with safe and supportive experiences online,” Antigone Davis, Meta Head of Safety, said in a statement. .

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