Many families in Florida and around the country have filed lawsuits against social media companies like Facebook, YouTube and Instagram over the harm their platforms can do to children, and three school districts have recently joined their ranks. The school district lawsuits are notable because they are based on the legal theory of public nuisance, which has prompted many experts to speculate that social media providers could be the defendants in the next wave of mass tort litigation.
Mass tort claims are civil actions brought by many plaintiffs against one or more defendants who have all acted in a similar way and caused similar harm. These lawsuits are often brought by cities, school district and state attorneys general, and mass tort defendants that have been ordered to pay billions of dollars in damages in recent years include tobacco companies, electronic cigarette makers and opioid drug manufacturers.
The allegations being leveled at social media companies are similar to the claims made in previous mass tort cases. The plaintiffs say that social media companies design their platforms to be addictive in order to increase profits, which is what tobacco companies were accused of doing. They also allege that companies like Facebook and TikTok intentionally target children. This is a claim that was made against the vaping company Juul when it released a bubble gum flavor electronic cigarette and promoted it in high schools. In 2022, Juul agreed to pay more than $1.5 billion to settle mass tort claims.
A public awakening
Excessive social media use has been linked to a surge in mental health problems in young people, and it seems that the public and public officials have had enough. Social media companies will likely argue that their activities are protected by the First Amendment, but they may find it difficult to explain algorithms that have allegedly been specifically engineered to trap and exploit the minds of children.