Inside look at Livingston School Board’s suit against social media companies

“It’s seducing you, it’s manipulating you, it wants things from you…Social media isn’t a tool waiting to be used. It has its own goal, and it has its own means of pursuing them by using your psychology against you.”

Paragraph 1, Petition of Livingston Parish School Board v. Meta Platforms, Inc., Instagram, LLC, BYTEDANCE, INC., TIKTOK, INC., CHARTER COMMUNICATIONS, LLC., COX COMMUNICATIONS, INC., AND COX COMMUNICATIONS LOUISIANA, LLC

LIVINGSTON — The Livingston Parish School Board filed a lawsuit against major social media and communication companies on July 18, 2023 in the 21st Judicial District Court, which was removed to the United States Middle District Court of Louisiana on August 23, 2023. LPSB bases its cause of action on the theories of negligence, intentional torts, products liability, unfair trade practices, and equitable estoppel.

The introduction of the petition discusses the findings from the documentary, The Social Dilemma, which discussed Tristan Harris’s account of what he witnessed while working for social media companies. LPSB relies on the findings from the documentary to assert that social media causes addiction within students, which is a mental illness and may cause other mental illnesses.

Allegations

In the 69-page petition, Livingston alleges the various social media platforms Meta, Instagram, and TikTok, use three design elements to make their platforms addictive: “(1) low-friction variable rewards; (2) navigation manipulation; and (3) social manipulation.” These elements form the basis for LSPB’s allegation that Meta, Instagram, and TikTok are liable for defective products since there is an “alternative design” that would make the platforms less defective.

The petition broadly addresses issues like bullying, stalking, addiction, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and privacy concerns. LSPB cites to quotes from the Surgeon General and some the nation’s medical organizations to assert that social media may increase feelings of depression and anxiety amongst the youth.

Interestingly, LSPB is also suing Charter Communications (dba Spectrum) and Cox Communications for providing the vehicle for students to access social media during school hours. LSPB believes that students would not have access to the “harmful social media platforms” without Spectrum and Cox. “It is their business — and their attendant physical infrastructure in the State of Louisiana and in Livingston Parish, specifically — that enables children to access these platforms in the first place.” (Paragraph 178 of the petition.)

LSPB ties in its allegations against Spectrum and Cox based on the 2,306 disciplinary incidents involving cell phones and the unauthorized use of technology in 2021-2022, and 2,488 disciplinary incidents regarding the same in 2022-2023. LSPB alleges that Spectrum and Cox have the technological capabilities to prevent students from accessing social media during school hours.

How this Affects LSPB

LSPB alleges that the defendants are the core cause of the students’ “mental health crisis.” This has caused LSPB to devote its resources to mental health trainings for teachers, staff and the community; hiring additional personnel to address mental health; developing mental health lesson plans; addressing property damage caused by students’ mental health; increased disciplinary services; confiscating devices; updating the student handbook; and updating school policies.

Additionally, with respect to Spectrum and Cox, students have unfettered access to social media during school hours, which allows students to use social media in a manner that substantially interferes with the functions and operations of the school. LSPB is asking for the following damages: injunction; damages to fund prevention education and treatment for excessive and problematic use of social media; actual and compensatory damages; attorneys’ fees and costs; and other equitable relief.

Recent Trends

On June 1, 2023, K-12 Dive reported a “‘Wave’ of litigation expected as schools fight social media companies.” There are several school districts across the United States that are filing lawsuits against Meta, Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube. Like LPSB, the school districts allege under the theory of products liability that social media platforms are addictive, causing student mental health issues, and other issues on school campuses.

School districts are concerned about diverting their resources to help with students’ mental health concerns. K-12 Dive reports that the case may open the flood-gates for parents to sue school districts for not doing enough to support students’ mental health.

These trends and LSPB’s lawsuit does raise a few questions: Who or what is responsible for the student mental health crisis?

Responsibility for Students Mental Health

Within the allegations, LSPB unambiguously points the finger at the defendants for the cause of students’ mental health issues. In negligence litigation, there is always a question regarding the causation of the harm. You must connect the dots to a specific act and/or person to place fault for the damages they caused.

Most of the time, the defendant isn’t the only person to blame in a negligence action. Livingston must evaluate whether it has acquiesced to the use of social media during school hours because parents sign a waiver allowing students to use their phones during school hours. This form is then returned to LSPB for their records.

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