NYC takes 5 social media giants to court over deteriorating mental health of city’s youth

Mayor Eric Adams announces city lawsuit against social media giants
Mayor Eric Adams’ administration brought a suit against five major social media companies on Feb. 14.
Credit: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

Mayor Eric Adams’ administration on Wednesday sued five major social media companies, seeking to hold them accountable for the alleged negative impacts their platforms have on youth mental health in the five boroughs.

The mayor on Wednesday also released his “Framework for Action” for combating the mental health crisis among young people linked to social media.

The Adams administration filed the action in California Superior Court in Los Angeles County on Feb. 14 against the companies that operate TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and YouTube — ByteDance, Meta, Snap Inc. and Google respectively. The city and two of its agencies — the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene — brought the suit together.

The lawsuit alleges that the companies intentionally designed their platforms with “addictive” and “dangerous” features that have fueled youth mental health issues like depression, eating disorders and suicidal ideation.

“We must take action to protect our children from harm online, including the growing dangers presented by social media,” Adams said during a City Hall news conference on Wednesday. “We are filing litigation today demanding that companies be held accountable for their platforms’ damaging influence on the mental health of our young people.”

State Attorney General Letitia James joined 32 other state attorneys general in bringing a similar suit against Meta last fall.

Adams said social media provides a platform for cyberbullying and encourages “reckless behavior” that has become widespread around the city, like subway surfing.

The city joined with hundreds of other school districts and municipalities across the country in separately filing similar cases that are being combined by the California court, according to a City Hall spokesperson. While the city is coordinating with the other plaintiffs, the spokesperson said, all of the suits will be adjudicated separately.

The mayor said the suit seeks to recover the money the city has had to shell out in order to deal with the fallout of the youth mental health crisis, which he said amounts to over $100 million annually. But the city’s Corporation Counsel Sylvia Hinds-Radix said it is too early in the process for the administration to have a specific dollar amount it wants to recoup from the suit.

Hinds-Radix said the suit is accusing the companies of negligence, nuisance and gross negligence. She said the action is not about trying to get rid of social media, but rather trying to mitigate its alleged negative effects.

Mayor Eric Adams announces lawsuit against social media giants
In many respects, the Adams administration claims, social media has had a powerful, addicting and negative influence on the youth as cigarettes.NYC Mayoral Photography Unit

Guardrails as a goal

City Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan said the suit’s ultimate goal is to push social media companies to institute guardrails that would better protect young people on their platforms. Those safety features include age verification and linking parent and child accounts.

“We need a host of changes to these platforms,” Vasan said. “We can’t expect or rely on them to police themselves.”

However, spokespeople for TikTok, Meta, Snapch Inc. and Google — in separate statements — insisted their companies have introduced numerous safety features to protect children and adolescents.

“TikTok has industry-leading safeguards to support teens’ well-being, including age-restricted features, parental controls, an automatic 60-minute time limit for users under 18, and more,” a TikTok spokesperson said.

José Castañeda, a spokesperson for Google, said the allegations in the suit are “simply not true.”

The legal action also caught heat from some of the city’s business leaders. Kathryn Wylde, who heads the Partnership for New York City and is a close ally of the mayor, said in a statement that it was “disappointing that the city intends to litigate this matter, which is likely to be a lengthy process with an unpredictable outcome.”

The announcement comes after the mayor directed Vasan to issue a health advisory last month with guidance for parents and guardians on how to curtail their children’s use of social media.