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North Dakota tribe files complaint against social media giants

Native youth especially vulnerable, court document says

North Dakota tribe files complaint against social media giants

by Mary Steurer, North Dakota Monitor
April 9, 2024

The Spirit Lake Nation on Tuesday filed a complaint against four major social media companies in California state court, seeking compensation for what it characterizes as predatory business practices that have contributed to a nationwide mental health crisis among adolescents.

The tribe is suing Facebook and Instagram owner Meta; Snapchat owner Snap .; TikTok and parent company ByteDance; and Alphabet, which owns Google and Youtube.

The Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin simultaneously filed a similar complaint with the same court. Both tribes are represented by law firm Robins Kaplan, which is headquartered in Minnesota. A Tuesday announcement from the firm said the case is the first to combat the "harmful effects of social media use on youth" on behalf of federally-recognized tribes.

In court records, the two tribes accuse the social media companies of intentionally exploiting kids by designing their products to be as addictive as possible, despite knowing that their platforms negatively impact adolescents' mental health.

The plaintiffs want reimbursement for damages caused by teen social media addiction as well as funding for the "prevention, education and treatment for excessive and problematic use of social media," the court filings state. The plaintiffs are also asking the court to order the companies to stop all business practices that harm kids' health.

"Given historic teen suicide and mental health issues on our Reservation and across Indian Country, Native youth are particularly vulnerable to the negative long-term effects resulting from the intentional, profit-driven design choices being made by these social media platforms," Spirit
Lake Nation Chair Lonna Jackson-Street said in the Tuesday statement.

The complaints follow other lawsuits against the four companies playing out in Los Angeles county. North Dakota also joined 33 other states last October to file suit against Meta for damages related to teen social media addiction in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

"In a race to corner the 'valuable but untapped' market of tween and teen users, each defendant designed product features to promote repetitive, uncontrollable use by kids,'" the plaintiffs state in the complaints.

Previously, the four social companies have said that they've implemented practices to protect young users and that First Amendment protections and existing internet regulations shield them from legal liability.



Kids don't have the same self-control skills adults do, so they're especially vulnerable to social media addiction and the mental health issues linked to it, the plaintiffs argue - including anxiety, depression, suicidality, eating disorders, interrupted sleep and poor body image. They state that the tribes lack the funding and resources to adequately assist teens in the growing crisis.

"These social media giants have generated hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue, our complaint alleges, using a growth-at-all-costs strategy that comes at the expense of Native children and teenagers and the Tribal Nations they are part of," Tim Purdon, chair of Robins Kaplan's American Indian Law and Policy Group, said in the statement.

The filings argue that while social media use has increased mental health issues for all teens, it poses a particular risk to Native American adolescents.

A Centers of Disease Control analysis of mortality data collected between 2018 and 2021 found that Indigenous youth had higher suicide rates compared to young people of any other racial or ethnic group.

The plaintiffs also accuse the social media companies of profiting off of teenagers by collecting enormous hordes of their user data, which the businesses use for marketing purposes and/or sell to third-party users.

The tribes filed suit in California because all of the defendants base their businesses there, the complaints state.

The Spirit Lake Nation is on the Spirit Lake Reservation near Devils Lake. The federally recognized tribe has roughly 8,000 enrolled members, according to its complaint.



North Dakota Monitor is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. North Dakota Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Amy Dalrymple for questions: [email protected]. Follow North Dakota Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.

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