Growing list of court cases look to hold social media giants accountable for harmful effects in children
Q&A with San Diego attorney Frederick Schenk about his role on a steering committee for the plaintiffs
A growing list of court cases throughout California has been taking aim at the top social media companies.
More than 40 lawsuits have been filed in California’s state court system against social media giants including TikTok, Facebook and SnapChat over the alleged addiction and other adverse effects they cause in children. Frederick Schenk, a partner at San Diego law firm CaseyGerry, is one of the attorneys on a steering committee for the plaintiffs.
The steering committee is part of a coordination process in the state court system. Similar cases can be bundled into one series of proceedings under a single trial judge, avoiding the potential for contradicting rulings if each case proceeded individually with its own judge.
Most of the social media addiction cases were filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, but others have been filed in San Francisco, San Bernardino, San Mateo, Trinity and Yolo counties, according to court records.
Schenk, who lives in Carmel Valley, discussed his role on the steering committee and the increased scrutiny of social media addiction:
Q: How did the topic of youth and social media addiction first come on to your radar?
Schenk, after describing a biannual event with other lawyers that he attended in 2022: “I attended this one breakout session on social media addiction. It just sounded sort of intriguing to me. And this program goes on for four days. I went and heard this one person speak on social media addiction, Matt Bergman, and I knew of Matt because I’ve been representing asbestos victims for 40 years and Matt had been doing that same litigation representing asbestos victims in Seattle, Washington, so I knew who he was.
“The one program that just reached deep into me and made me really want to dive into this area was this particular subject. I head up the mass torts department for my law firm, CaseyGerry, and we decided that we’re going to look into this further, and as I began to look into it further, I realized how pervasive the problem is. I started meeting with other lawyers and was approached to co-council on some cases. Concurrent with that, there were cases being filed in California, both in federal court and in California’s state court.”
Q: Where does the process with the steering committee currently stand?
Schenk: “We’re really at the very beginning, we only got started just this year. The court made the selection of the steering committee a few months ago. We’re at the early stages, what we refer to as the pleading stages, getting complaints put together. There will be motions from the defense opposing the complaints that have been filed. But eventually, when we get past this, we will be involved in some very heavy duty discovery, that is doing our homework against the companies that have been sued in this litigation.
“It’s a multiyear process, and that’s why the steering committee takes its job so seriously.”
Q: What have you learned about social media and addiction that you would want parents and children to know about?
Schenk, following a description of data points such as an estimated 210 million people worldwide experiencing addiction to social media, per ScienceDirect: “This is data that I came to learn about, I didn’t know it before I got involved. But it is just an overwhelming, pervasive use of media and the hours during the day that teens are on social media. They spend five to seven hours per day on their smartphones, according to NPR. The data is sadly very rich with statistics that are not very heartening. As a result of that side of the data, which shows the number of people that are using it, and then you look at the significant, increased number of adverse impacts between 2007 and 2018 on 12- to 16-year-olds, we think there is a tight correlation between those two datasets.”
Q: What role do you have in advocating for SB 287, a bill in the state Legislature that would penalize social media companies for knowingly using algorithms, designs or other features to get children addicted?
Schenk: “We’re obviously very supportive of the Senate bill. I’ve spoken with President Pro Tem Toni Atkins about it, she’s very supportive of it. The first go-around, it did not make it through because there was quite a bit of opposition from industry. We’re hoping that the changes will allow for it to be successful. Since I’ve gotten involved, I’ve met with Sen. Atkins about this and expressed to her my willingness to help in any way and we’ll see where it goes. I can’t say I’m optimistic but I always would say I’m hopeful we’ll be able to get passage of the bill to protect young people.”
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