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Durham schools to join lawsuit against social media giants

Durham Public Schools will join hundreds of other school systems, including 14 in North Carolina, and 42 attorneys general, in a lawsuit against Meta, Google, TikTok, and Snap for the detrimental effects they say the companies’ products have had on students. 

The school board voted unanimously to join the suit on Thursday after a presentation by attorney Janet Ward Black of Ward Black Law, a personal injury firm based in Greensboro. The firm’s legal team is representing more than 60 school boards in this multi-district case.

Social media companies design their applications to send children down bottomless rabbit holes, said Ward Black. Targeted algorithms attract and addict adolescents, while dings and beeps cause an immediate endorphin rush, she said, adding,“The longer the student is on the social media application, the larger the opportunity for these for-profit companies to make more money.”

Scientific literature reveals that social media usage among youth can lead to anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and suicidal ideation. With over one-third of children ages 13-17 reporting using one of the companies’ applications “almost constantly,” the U.S. Surgeon General has described it as “just not a fair fight” between children and Big Tech.

Because school districts are primary providers of mental health support for young people, they’ve had to bear the brunt of treating students affected by social media, said Ward Black. This lawsuit aims to secure compensation for depleted school resources, the toll on school personnel, and the need for future outreach programs and mental health support. 

“Litigation can cause behavior changes,” Ward Black said. She represented school boards in multi-district litigation cases against JUUL and opioid companies, which secured millions in compensation for school districts nationwide. Rather than Durham filing its own suit against billion-dollar corporations, multi-district legislation allows hundreds of districts nationwide to band together, she said.

“With individual litigation, a lot of times you don’t get the attention of folks,” Ward Black said. “But in this instance, you have hundreds of school boards from all across the country banding together and saying…you have put a burden on us, and as a result, you should be paying for the consequences.” 

This case will be filed in North Carolina federal court before being transferred to a U.S. judge in California. DPS will pay no legal fees unless it wins the lawsuit, in which case attorneys would be paid a 25% contingency fee. 

Members of the school board were eager for Durham to join the lawsuit.

“It frightens me, that idea that our kids can get lost in a world without people looking out for them,” said DPS board member Emily Chávez. “I’m excited to move forward with this, and I’m hopeful that this will be as successful as the JUUL litigation.

Board member Natalie Beyer echoed Chávez’s sentiments. “We struggle to have resources we need for counseling and mental health support for our children,” she said. 

Member Jessica Carda-Auten agreed. “If end up with some compensation to support the needs of our students, that’d be amazing,” she said. “We have the ability to impact hundreds of thousands fo lives with this.”

“Thank you,” replied Ward Black. “I promise we will do the very best we can for this school system.”