Social Media and Mental Health Lawsuits
The past 15 years have witnessed an exponential growth in the use of social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and other media giants. Social media are web based services that allow individuals to communicate, share information, form online communities, and exchange information. They are also places where danger lurks and where we can encounter disturbing or addictive content.
The annual profits of just two of these companies, Facebook and Instagram, (both owned by Meta Platforms, Inc.) exceed 100 billion dollars. Social media use revolutionized the communications industry and has fundamentally changed the way we interact and communicate. Social media as a consumer product have both benefits and dangers and it is important that we educate ourselves about them.
Billions of images and posts are uploaded to these platforms per day, many containing harmful or objectionable content. Social media use is exceedingly popular with teenagers and even pre-teens as the use of handheld electronic devices such as cell phones becomes more widely used by increasingly younger children, some as young as 7 or 8 years of age. The proliferation of images and videos full of beautiful talented young people posting images can create a false sense of reality, particularly to shy or insecure teens who may compare themselves with these influencers and feel they come up short. The likes and comments teenagers receive on social media can directly impact their status in school and their popularity among their peers, leading them to go to more extreme measures to gain this attention. This can gradually lead to negative mental health outcomes like distorted body image, eating disorders, depression and anxiety.
Cyberbullying is another serious problem that results from the use of social media. Social media has become a way to stigmatize others. The harms of this kind of bullying go far beyond the harm that traditional bullying behavior does due to the extended reach of social media. Anyone who has been the victim of high school bullying can testify to its lasting and harmful mental health effects which can persist well into adulthood. Cyberbullying has been associated with teen suicide.
Social Media Use Among Teens Has Become an Addiction
Social researchers have documented a dramatic rise in teen depression and anxiety as well as other mental health problems. Some teens spend so much time engaged with their electronic devices accessing social media, they may prefer it to face-to-face social interactions. Much of their sense of identity and self-worth is tied to their online social media identities. It has come to the attention of scientists that some teens use social media compulsively and may not exercise control over their behavior. Addiction is defined by the American Society of Addiction Medicine as “a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences”. People with addictions often continue them despite harmful health and social consequences. The average teen now spends at least an hour and a half a day or more interacting with electronic devices and viewing or posting to social media. Some spend hours more, neglecting healthier activities like sports and face-to-face interactions that increase social intelligence and resilience necessary to meet the demands of adult life.
It’s About the Numbers
Like any business, media corporations seek to maximize their profit margins and market share by increasing customer use and time spent online. Much like television, social media corporations sell access to their users by providing them with a narrowly segmented audience. Artificial intelligence algorithms allow them to plough through large amounts user data and to drive content to specific audiences. The practice of using algorithms to drive content to narrowly segmented groups is being evaluated by regulators more closely as more high-profile cases of teen injuries and deaths hit the news and come up through the courts.
Bring in the Regulators!
In 2021 The U.S. Senate empaneled an investigative committee to study the matter. Some of the most compelling testimony came from a whistleblower and former Facebook employee, who released tens of thousands of pages of Facebook internal documents and research and made her case to Congress for tougher regulations. During her testimony, evidence emerged that Facebook ignored the findings of its own internal research that it’s product may have negative mental health effects on teenagers, particularly young girls. The sad news is that social media companies are not required to disclose these findings to the public.
Scope of the Problem
Literally billions of images, photographs, videos, likes, and repostings are uploaded to Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites daily which are screened by content moderators. The job of moderating content is critically important. Content moderation is the job of deciding what stays online and what is removed. Without it, the industry’s highly profitable business model would not work. Yet the companies have largely outsourced this crucial job to third party vendors. These vendors run customer service call centers all over the world and hire relatively low-paid contractors, who may be unfamiliar with local customs and culture, to sit in front of computer workstations and sort acceptable content from unacceptable. Some operate in the U.S., but others operate in far-flung locations in the Philippines, India, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Germany, Latvia, and Kenya.
Problems with Content Moderation
During her testimony, the Facebook whistleblower reported that artificial intelligence programs used to week out objectionable content only capture a tiny fraction of offending content. There are now calls for reforms to the practice of content moderation outsourcing which undoubtedly saves the media companies millions of dollars annually but shortchanges users in terms of product safety. Content moderators must spend many hours a day exposed to content that is graphic or disturbing. Human content moderators themselves may suffer harmful mental health effects from these long hours of exposure to graphic imagery leading to depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, yet their status as contractors affords them no such support. Some of these workers have filed lawsuits against the social media companies for better working conditions and mental health support.
Following the Congressional hearings in 2021, the Wall Street Journal released a series of scathing articles about Facebook based on their review of the whistleblower testimony and Facebook’s internal documents. Their conclusion was that Facebook not only knew about the negative effects its platforms have on users but repeatedly failed to address them.
Newsworthy Individual Case of Harm
An illustrative case is that of a mother of a 10-year-old girl who died while attempting the viral TikTok “blackout challenge”. The is a viral challenge popular among teens and preteens that involves a person filming themselves while holding their breath to the point where they lose consciousness. The dead child’s mother appealed to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse a lower court decision that dismissed her claim against TikTok for the death of her daughter. She alleged the company was responsible for her daughter’s death based their use of algorithms to drive content to her daughter. The lower court held that TikTok did not create the content and therefore was immune from liability citing section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The case is now being appealed in the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals. The TikTok blackout challenge case is Anderson v. TikTok, Inc., et al., Case No. 22-3061.
Social Media Harm to Children
Alleged harms resulting from excessive use of social media include:
- attempted suicide,
- alteration in body image,
- decreased self-esteem,
- sleep deprivation, and
- physical inactivity due to excessive screen time.
How to Recognize Mental Health Problems Caused by Social Media Use
Parents should monitor their children and find out what they can about the kinds of social media their children use and what they do online. The following is a list of warning signs and behaviors concerned parents may see.
- Social withdrawal,
- depressed mood,
- lack of pleasure in doing things they used to do,
- disrupted sleep patterns,
- urgency to use social media first thing in the morning, late into the night, or getting up early to sign on,
- changes in appetite or weight loss or gain, and
- poor or slipping grades.
What You Can Do if You Think You or Your Child Were Harmed by Social Media
Social media Goliaths should be held accountable for the harm caused to children by their products and business practices. Change won’t come until they see that failure to act can affect their profits. It was much the same with the tobacco industry in years past. An informed public is the first defense. We must pressure regulators and lawmakers to do the right thing.
If you think you or your child have been harmed by using social media, consult with an experienced attorney familiar with social media plaintiff litigation. Cases can be tried on an individual basis but are often part of larger causes of action such as product liability class action lawsuits or multidistrict litigation. Consult an attorney who specializes in this area of the law. You need the best legal representation you can find because you can bet the social media companies will be well armed with the best legal talent money can buy.
What Kind of Relief are You Entitled to if You Win Your Case?
Compensation may vary depending on whether your attorney files an individual civil case or if your case is a part of a class action, or multidistrict litigation. Some types of compensation include:
- damages for wrongful death by the estate of the deceased,
- current and future medical expenses,
- time missed from work,
- pain and suffering,
- punitive (non-economic) damages if the conduct of the defendant was knowingly negligent.
What Does the Future Hold?
Litigation against social media companies is evolving. Many more cases are expected in the future. The scientific evidence that points to a causal relationship between social media and harmful mental health effects and suicide is also evolving and much more research is needed. What we do know is that the makers of a product or service sold to the public have a duty to make their products safe for use and that they should be held accountable if they produce a defective or dangerous product, hide evidence of harms, or fail to take corrective action.
Barrett, P. M. (June 2020). Who moderates the social media giants? A call to end outsourcing. NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights. https://bhr.stern.nyu.edu/tech-content-moderation-june-2020?_ga=2.218647001.136379109.1674076196-632053841.1674076196
Congressional Research Service. (January 27, 2021). Social media: Misinformation and content moderation issues for Congress [Report No. 46662]. http://www.crs.congress.gov
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