Over the past 15 years, social media use has become commonplace in the U.S., and social media addiction has risen dramatically among children and teenagers. A 2022 survey found 35% of all U.S. teens say they are on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok or Snapchat “almost constantly.” This trend has contributed to a mental health crisis among American children.
Social media companies have been accused of failing to provide protections to minor-aged users and deliberately designing and developing their platforms to addict adolescents, increasing the risk of teen suicide and other harmful behaviors.
In his 2023 State of the Union address, President Joe Biden called out the importance of holding social media companies accountable for the negative impact they’ve had on the youth mental health crisis. He emphasized the dangers of the design of social media products targeted at children and the need for action against Big Tech. Biden urged Congress to stop Big Tech from collecting personal data on kids and teenagers online, ban targeted advertising to children, and impose stricter limits on the personal data collected.
Social media companies including Meta Platforms, Inc., ByteDance Ltd., Snap, Inc., and Google LLC, are facing lawsuits for teen suicides and other harm that may be related to use of popular social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, and YouTube.
In addition to compensation, lawsuits filed by parents and loved ones of teens harmed by social media use seek to hold companies accountable by demanding changes to social media platforms, algorithms and practices to better protect minor users.
Social Media May Contribute to Harm in Minors
A 2018 study showed that up to 97% of teenagers may use a social media platform. Even amongst the “tween” age group (11 to 13 years old), the number may be as high as 75%. Social media use has been linked to serious mental disorders and may contribute to an increase in the number of teen suicides.
Social media use may contribute to:
- Eating disorders
- Sexual exploitation
According to surveys, the more time a teen spends on social media, the less likely they are to be satisfied with life. Social media can also expose teens to cyberbullying, decreased self-esteem, body image concerns, and create unrealistic views of others’ lives. Isolation during the COVID-19 epidemic may have increased the concerns and negative influence of social media even further.
In a recent CDC report, data from 2011 to 2021 revealed that:
- 16% of high school students were electronically bullied, including through texting, Instagram, Facebook, or other social media, during the past year. Female students were more likely than male students to be electronically bullied.
- 29% of high school students experienced poor mental health during the past 30 days.
- 22% of high school students seriously considered attempting suicide during the past year.
- 18% of high school students made a suicide plan during the past year.
Recent concerns over suicide and other harm caused by social media use amongst teens has led to wrongful death and other lawsuits against popular platforms seeking to hold companies accountable for their practices.
Social Media Suicide Risk
Social media use may be linked to an increase in the risk of teen suicide. Between 2007 and 2018, suicide rates in 12-to-16-year age bracket increased 146% and may be correlated with social media use. The COVID-19 epidemic exacerbated the problems of social isolation, increasing the negative impact that social media may have on a young person’s self-esteem and mental health. Teens may develop an excessive reliance on social media connections which can be harmful and can encourage self-harming behaviors or even suicide.
People who are at high risk of suicide may exhibit signs including:
- Talk of:
- Killing themselves
- Feeling hopeless
- Having no reason to live
- Feeling trapped
- Unbearable pain
- Increased alcohol or drug use
- Searching online or looking for suicide methods
- Withdrawing from activities
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Saying goodbye
- Giving away possessions
If you know of or are concerned about someone who may be suicidal, call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or Text TALK to 741741. If it is a medical emergency, call 911.
Social Media Fails to Protect Minors from Harm
Social media companies have been accused of creating platforms that fail to protect teenagers and younger children from harm. Several product liability lawsuits, including wrongful death lawsuits have been filed against social media giants including Meta Platforms, Inc., owners of Facebook and Instagram, ByteDance Ltd., owner of TikTok, Google LLC, owner of YouTube, and Snap, Inc., owner of Snapchat.
The companies have been accused of negligence by creating products with defective design and unreasonably dangerous features.
Lawsuits claim that the companies failed to:
- Provide safeguards from harmful or exploitive content
- Verify age and identity
- Provide adequate parental control and monitoring
- Protect minors from being directed to harmful and exploitive content
- Protect minors from sexual exploitation and abuse
- Provide adequate notification to parents about dangerous and problematic usage
The companies are accused of creating products that are addictive and of using algorithms and other methods designed to keep minors on the platforms longer, while potentially directing them to harmful content and interactions.
Social Media Use May Be Addictive
Teenagers’ brains are not fully developed, and minors often lack decision making and impulse control capability. While some teenagers may exhibit adequate control, other minor-aged children may become easy victims to the development of addictive behaviors. This issue may be compounded by existing mental health issues such as ADHD.
Social media companies are accused of exploiting minor’s limited self-control and creating a product with mechanisms that increase the chance of addictive behavior.
Social media manipulation may expose teens to:
- Never-ending scrolling algorithms
- 24-hour stream of notifications and alerts
- Severe sleep deprivation
- Solicitation for sexually exploitive content
- Ridicule and embarrassment experienced at school
Social media platforms are constantly adapting and evolving to cater to users’ needs, desires, and preferences in order to keep the user on the platform for longer periods of time. Through social media use, minor-aged users may feel encouraged to record videos of harmful behavior which are then discussed, shared, and spread virally. Examples include videos of teens playing Russian roulette, the “choking game”, cinnamon and “Tide-pod” challenges, and engaging in other harmful behaviors that could be serious or even life-threatening.
Social media use may falsely amplify and normalize harmful behavior, even leading users to find new types of harmful behavior. The use of algorithms dictate what engagement is needed to keep users engaged, and data collection practices allow the algorithm to be specifically targeted to one user. This means that if a user had watched a video about self-harm and commented or engaged, they will likely be shown more videos of self-harm.
Social Media Companies Aware of Potential Harm to Minors
Internal documents and testimony given before Congress by former employees reveal that Meta Platforms, owner of Facebook and Instagram was aware of the flaws and addictive properties of its social media platforms. The company was reportedly aware that use of the platforms could damage mental health and body image, and drive users toward harmful content.
Though companies like Meta claim that they don’t “encourage” children under 13 years of age to use the sites and may officially “limit” use to older children, there is little, if any verification of a new user’s age or identity. Internal documents and discussions allegedly show that they have studied the behaviors and patterns of “tween” users and referred to the age group as “herd animals”. Other social media companies may have similar disclosures.
Social Media Companies Facing Lawsuits for Teen Suicides and Other Harm
Social media use may have contributed to suicides and other harmful behavior in minors as young as age 11 and may have led to self-harm and serious safety concerns in other teens and tweens. Dozens of families have filed wrongful death lawsuits against social media companies seeking damages for their losses.
These lawsuits also seek modifications to social media platforms through changes to dangerous algorithms that may be profitable for the companies but are seriously problematic for teen safety.
Social media minor suicide and mental health lawsuits may force companies to face an economic cost and force changes to dangerous algorithms and practices which harm teens by demanding change as part of settlements.
Families and loved ones of minors who have been harmed by social media experiences or whose children committed suicide after excessive social media use may be eligible for compensation.
School Board Cases
Faced with an unprecedented youth mental health crisis, a growing number of school districts have also filed lawsuits against social media companies, alleging these companies design their platforms to encourage compulsive misuse in children and citing the detrimental impact of their addictive products on students’ mental health. Schools across the country are grappling with the financial strain associated with the surge in student mental health issues, the need to hire additional support staff, and the cost of training teachers to manage heightened distractions in classrooms.
With these lawsuits, school districts aim to hold social media companies accountable for the harm they have caused and obtain funding for the new resources needed for social media use education and mental health resources. Schools also want to see stronger protections and safer practices implemented on these platforms, so minors may avoid social media addiction and the dangers associated with it.
Seeger Weiss represents school boards in social media harm to children lawsuits on a contingency basis, meaning there will be no cost to taxpayers.