By Brian Kabateck
In its many forms, social media is omnipresent in our daily lives. For many of us, it’s hard to remember when we didn’t routinely post, tweet, like, friend, and LOL.
And a whole generation of youth never did know a time before social media—they’ve been immersed in a digital world since the beginning.
In an article about the impact of social media on teens, The Mayo Clinic cites a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center, which surveyed nearly 750 adolescents (ages 13-17) and found that “45% are online almost constantly and 97% use a social media platform, such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat.”
That was pre-pandemic.
A recent survey by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit research organization, found that “overall screen use among teens and tweens increased by 17 percent from 2019 to 2021—growing more rapidly than in the four years prior,” the New York Times reported. By 2021 the average tween (8-12 years) was using screens for 5 hours and 33 minutes per day (up from four hours and 44 minutes in 2019), and teenagers were on their devices an average of eight hours and 39 minutes daily (up from seven hours and 22 minutes).
At least in part, these numbers likely reflect increases directly related to lengthy Covid lockdowns, when screens—social media, video conferencing, texting, and so forth—were kids’ only connection to friends, extended family, school, and activities. As such, experts say that screen time in and of itself is not necessarily problematic.
But among other concerning trends, the study also found that 38 percent of tween respondents—kids as young as eight—now use social media, a 31 percent increase over 2019.
An emerging body of research is exploring the effects of social media on youth. As the Mayo Clinic points out, there are some benefits: peer communication and social networks for kids who feel excluded, entertainment, humor, the ability to learn about virtually any subject without geographical barriers, etc.
However, the adverse effects are also increasingly clear:
- Distraction disrupts sleep
- Exposure to unrealistic and manipulated images of bodies, faces, and lives.
- Bullying, vicious rumors, and peer pressure.
- Disturbing news, violence, inappropriate sexual content, and privacy concerns.
Numerous studies involving thousands of adolescent subjects have shown a link between social media use and heightened risk for mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, negative body image, eating disorders, and poor sleep—in the most tragic cases leading to self-harm even suicide.
Making matters worse, experts say, the algorithmic design (“engagement-based ranking”) of specific platforms automatically leads the user toward more extreme and even toxic content through recommendations, promotions, autoplay features, and so on.
In 2021, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked thousands of pages of internal documents to the Wall Street Journal, demonstrating that Facebook understood its algorithms promoted harmful content. “Facebook, over and over again, has shown it chooses profit over safety,” Haugen told 60 Minutes when she eventually revealed her identity.
Despite considerable bipartisan support, regulation legislation has moved slowly, but now, families across the country are suing social media giants for harm to their kids’ health and wellbeing. According to research by Bloomberg Law, since 2016, 186 federal complaints have been filed against major social media platforms—179 of them in the last year alone.
A new consolidated lawsuit, filed this February in the Northern District of California, combines more than 130 individual claims from numerous jurisdictions.
The plaintiffs allege that the defendants, including Alphabet (YouTube and Google), Meta (Facebook and Instagram), TikTok, and Snap, “defectively designed their platforms—in foreseeable unsafe ways and in dereliction of their basic duties of care—to induce harmful, unhealthy, and compulsive use by kids.”
Since the mid-1990s, social media outlets have enjoyed broad immunity from liability claims, provided by a short piece of legislation: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which states that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” In other words, the law shields social media platforms from responsibility for what users post. Gonzalez vs. Google, a case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, challenges this notion and has the potential to reshape social media and the entire Internet.
In the meantime, however, the new consolidated case takes a different and novel approach. Rather than hinging on whether social media companies are publishers or platforms for third-party content, the case treats social media algorithms as products. In this argument, social media companies are manufacturers—here, of a product that is demonstrably harmful and addictive in ways that are both predictable and well-known to the companies that make them.
The case will test the bounds of product liability law (generally applied to tangible property). It may offer a powerful alternative route to holding social media companies accountable for their role in the mental health crisis among today’s youth.
The attorneys at Kabateck LLP are consumer rights advocates. Consumer protection laws are designed to ensure the rights of vulnerable consumers in society. The laws are a form of government directive intended to protect the rights of consumers. If you believe you and many others like you have been somehow injured, cheated, or otherwise harmed by unfair business practices, give us a call, and let us help you protect your rights.