Parents and school districts are pursuing product liability claims against tech companies like Meta and Google because they believe that their algorithms have exposed children to content that causes mental health problems and destructive behaviors. On social media, students are inundated with increasingly sensational or controversial messaging, which they have a limited ability to process compared to adults.
This has resulted in school districts taking on the logistical and financial burden of confronting the mental health crisis facing teenagers today and parents being forced to take on the expense of securing treatment for their teen’s issues. If your child has been harmed as a result of a social media platform’s toxic algorithm, you may be able to recover compensation for your damages in a social media youth harm lawsuit. A product liability attorney can help you establish a clear chain of causation, document your damages, and negotiate your claim.
Curated Content Linked to Eating Disorders
Social media algorithms are designed to attract and maintain the user’s attention. That means curating novel content that aligns with an individual user’s specific interests. Unfortunately, the algorithms currently used by social media platforms like Instagram lack the necessary protections to prevent young users from inadvertently being exposed to content glorifying eating disorders, self-harm, and other concerning behaviors that can irreparably damage a person’s health.
For example, a teenage girl looking for a new swimsuit for the summer may be browsing Instagram when she is presented with an innocuous post about swimsuit trends this year. The next post may be an article about how to look your best in a bikini by working out, and the post after that includes dangerous tips on how to restrict your eating to achieve the perfect summer body. For some families, this example is a reality. Candace Wuest’s daughter, identified as CN in the social media lawsuit, developed a serve eating disorder after Instagram’s algorithm directed her from harmless recipe content to information on how to restrict her eating.
This pattern of negligence among social media companies has been disclosed by their own employees. A Facebook whistleblower exposed Instagram for knowing that their algorithm promoted harmful body image content that negatively impacted girls’ self-esteem. The combination of body image issues and low self-esteem is often correlated with eating disorders, which can cause life-threatening health complications and even lead to depression and suicide.
Cyberbullying Via Social Media Has Led to Teen Suicides and Self-Harm
Many argue that social media can facilitate cyberbullying, as in the case of McKenna Brown, a Pinellas County teen who took her own life after a compromising picture of her was posted on social media. Her initial suicide attempt failed, and her parents sought support from the school, which offered limited mental health resources. The harassment culminated when Brown anticipated classmates were poised to reveal that she had been raped.
After experiencing additional intense bullying on Instagram, Brown committed suicide at age 16. While Instagram is not legally responsible for the content the bullies created, new product liability lawsuits argue that social media platforms are at least partially responsible for creating bullies in the first place.
Social media gives users the power to maintain a degree of anonymity and emotional distance from other users. Additionally, social media algorithms may promote content to young users that gives them the false impression that bullying is acceptable by providing unrealistic images and inaccurate information. Parents and educators argue that an algorithm that actively promotes content depicting violent, cruel, and harmful behaviors is a large contributing factor to the mental health crisis facing teenagers.
Consuming Social Media Content Increases the Risk of Mental Health Issues in Teens
The average teenager in the U.S. uses the internet every single day, and many spend over 8 hours a day online. As Seattle Public Schools have noted, frequent social media usage is linked to a number of mental health problems as teens become isolated, vulnerable to bullying, and exposed to toxic content. Most frequently, school districts report students seeking resources for anxiety and depression.
Plaintiffs in the social media youth harm cases attribute this to the addictive nature of social media, which is largely made possible by its algorithm. The parents of Alexandra Martin know the cost of this addictive behavior all too well. Martin began using Instagram as a pre-teen, and quickly fell prey to Instagram’s algorithm that showed her impressionable mind eating disorder content. She subsequently developed anxiety and depression, which likely fueled her eating disorder.
Despite the consequences she was facing, Martin struggled to give up Instagram. She battled anorexia at an inpatient facility and attempted suicide twice as a result of her depression. In the family’s social media youth harm lawsuit, they accuse Instagram of using an algorithm that promoted “underweight models, unhealthy eating, and eating disorder content.” The Martin family’s experience highlights the dangers of consuming social media content that is intended to become addictive.
Parents and Schools Sue Tech Companies in Product Liability Claims
Tech companies are currently protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 from being held liable for third-party content posted on their platforms. The lack of nuance in this law means that thus far, tech companies like Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, have been shielded from civil lawsuits despite their involvement in amplifying incredibly harmful messages.
Both school districts and families have argued that the tech companies' algorithms constitute a product that is defective. Their ability to recover compensation depends on the outcome of Gonzalez v. Google, a case currently being heard in the Supreme Court. The parents of Nohemi Gonzalez, a young American student who was killed by an ISIS terrorist attack while studying abroad, are suing Google for damages.
They claim that Google, the owner of YouTube, should be held responsible for effectively promoting terrorist organizations messaging through their algorithm. The Supreme Court is likely to defer to Congress to delve into the specifics of how the Communications Decency Act should be updated. If the Supreme Court decides to rule in favor of the Gonzalez family, school districts and parents would have greater legal standing to make product liability claims against tech companies for their negligence.
Recovering Damages in a Social Media Youth Harm Lawsuit
Generally speaking, there are two different sets of damages that plaintiffs are seeking in the social media youth harm lawsuits. For school districts seeking damages, their claims for compensation focus on the resources they have been expected to provide and the training it takes to offer these resources. For example:
- Teacher training
- Education materials
- Additional counselors
- Funding for experts to create material and train teachers
In product liability lawsuits brought by individuals or families on behalf of their children, the damages are more focused on the costs of treatment and the emotional impact of the social media harm. This includes both economic, or financial, and non-economic, or emotional, losses.
- Emotional distress
- Loss of quality of life
- Wrongful death
If you are considering filing a social media youth harm lawsuit against a tech company it is in your best interest to hire an experienced product liability lawyer. This area of personal injury law is still developing, and it will take an expert mind to establish liability and negotiate for the maximum compensation you deserve.