Mayor Adams sues social media companies over damaging influence on children’s mental health

New York City Mayor Eric Adams, New York City Corporation Counsel Sylvia O. Hinds Radix, New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan, NYC Health + Hospitals (NYC H+H) President Dr. Michell Katz, and New York City Department of Education (DOE) Chancellor David C. Banks, on February 14, 2024, announced the filing of a lawsuit to hold five social media platforms — TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and YouTube — accountable for fueling the nationwide youth mental health crisis. The city is joining hundreds of school districts from across the country in filing litigation seeking to force tech giants to change their behavior and to recover the costs of addressing this public health threat. The city spends more than $100 million on youth mental health programs and services each year. To help address this ongoing crisis and the harm caused by these platforms, Mayor Adams also today released a social media action plan, “New York City’s Role in the National Crisis of Social Media and Youth Mental Health: Framework for Action, to hold social media companies accountable, provide education and support to young people and families, and study the long-term impacts of social media on youth.

Today’s announcement builds on the Health Commissioner’s Advisory that DOHMH Commissioner Dr. Vasan issued last month, identifying unfettered access to and use of social media as a public health hazard, just as past U.S. surgeons general have done with tobacco and firearms. The advisory provides recommendations to parents and caregivers, health care providers, educators, and policymakers on actions that can be taken to protect children, including the recommendation to delay social media use until the age of 14.

Today’s lawsuit — filed in California Superior Court by the City of New York, the DOE (the largest school district in the nation), and NYC H+H (the country’s largest public hospital system) — seeks to hold the companies operating TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and YouTube accountable for their role creating the youth mental health crisis in New York City. The lawsuit alleges that companies intentionally designed their platforms to purposefully manipulate and addict children and teens to social media applications with features that include:

  • Using algorithms to generate feeds that keep users on the platforms longer and encourage compulsive use.
  • Using mechanics akin to gambling in the design of apps, which allow for anticipation and craving for “likes” and “hearts,” and also provides continuous, personalized streams of content and advertisements.
  • Manipulating users through reciprocity — a social force, especially powerful among teenagers, that describes how people feel compelled to respond to one positive action with another positive action. 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 complaint specifically states the companies’ intentional conduct and negligence has been a substantial factor in fueling a youth mental health crisis, which constitutes a public nuisance affecting schools, public hospitals, and communities citywide, and, as a result, that the city has had to expend significant resources to address. In New York City, over 38 percent of high school students reported feeling so sad or hopeless during the past year that they stopped engaging in their usual activities. The rate of hopelessness among New York City high schoolers in 2021 was almost 50 percent higher for Latino and Black students than for white students, and almost 70 percent higher for female students than for male students. Today, over one-third of 13- to 17-year-old children nationwide report using social media “almost constantly” and admit this is “too much.” Yet, more than half of these kids report that they would struggle to cut back on their social media use. Likewise, in 2021, 77 percent of New York City high school students reported spending an average of three or more hours per school day in front of screens — not including time spent on schoolwork. 

The Adams administration has taken repeated action to tackle the youth mental health crisis. Last year, Mayor Adams announced that the city launched TeenSpace, a free tele-mental health service available to all New York City teenagers, between the ages of 13 and 17 years old, that allows teenagers to connect with a licensed therapist through phone, video, and text. In the three months of operation, TeenSpace has served over 2,000 youth across the five boroughs.

In addition to the city’s work supporting New York City youth in crisis through DOHMH and NYC H+H programming, DOE has devoted significant resources to combatting students’ addiction to social media and the many resulting harms, including by responding to cyberbullying occurring outside of class, providing counseling for anxiety and depression, and developing curricula about the effects of social media and how to stay safe online.

In March 2023, the Adams administration launched “Care, Community, Action: A Mental Health Plan for New York City,” a mental health plan focused on improving the mental health of children and young people. Following the plan’s release, the city convened more than 150 advocates, researchers, technologists, mental health providers, community-based organizations, and caregivers in partnership with New York City youth to lay out potential pathways for action to protect the mental health of children and youth. The convening provided the recommendations that built the foundation for today’s social media action plan, outlining New York City’s commitment to protect young New Yorkers against this threat and empower them to use these technologies in ways that are less harmful. As part of today’s plan, the city will also identify where local data can support existing research on this topic and opportunities to survey youth on their experiences with social media, why they use social media, their current social media habits, and social media’s impacts on their mental health. Finally, the city will advocate with state and federal policymakers to put in place laws that require social media companies to ensure that their platforms are safe for youth mental health.

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