In a newly released report, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, raised concerns that social media may have a harmful effect on younger users, particularly in regard to their mental health. While this report echoes the sentiments expressed by educators, parents, researchers, and mental health professionals across the country, it carries an additional weight having come from one of the highest-ranking public health officials in the United States.
Tech companies have already begun facing legal backlash from parents and school districts in the form of social media youth harm lawsuits. Plaintiffs claim that companies like Google and Meta should be found liable for damages related to their children’s mental health issues stemming from toxic algorithms that promote harmful content. If your child has been diagnosed with mental health problems that stem from the harmful effects of social media algorithms, you should consider taking legal action. A product liability lawyer is the most qualified person to review the facts of your case and determine the most effective path forward for recovering compensation.
Report Advises Cautious Attitude and Additional Regulation of Social Media for Teens and Children
Historically, surgeon generals have issued warnings to the public on various topics that they deem a threat to public safety, such as the causal relationship between smoking cigarettes and cancer. In this case, Dr. Murthy highlights the risks associated with allowing children and teens access to social media which has limited protective measures in place. He notes that social media is not exclusively harmful, but the potential for unhealthy exposure or influence is high.
The report offers guidance for both individual families and calls for accountability among tech companies like Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram. Parents should communicate their rules for social media usage and designate device-free times during the day, placing an emphasis on privacy and moderation, respectively. The report also outlined expectations for tech companies to participate in creating a safer environment for young users by instituting more effective age restrictions and creating automatic settings applied to the accounts of the youngest users.
Dr. Murthy emphasizes that the long-term impact of social media on the health of young users, especially during the formative years of their brain development, is unknown. By drawing public attention to this issue, the report aims to motivate tech companies, parents, and legislators into taking appropriate action to mitigate the potential harm that social media can inflict.
In the meantime, teens and children are being fed a stream of curated content that can have a profound influence on their mental health and safety.
How Social Media Can Harm Kids and Teens
The average American teenager spends five and a half to eight and a half hours a day engaging with screens, a startling number that has only grown in recent years. Much of that time is spent consuming content or interacting with other users on platforms like TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Snapchat. Concerned parents and teachers have linked this uptick to a host of issues among teens children, including:
A young user may start by watching benign content, such as another young user doing a thrift haul video to show off their new clothes on TikTok. The algorithm can then lead them to a video of a user showing off the new clothes they purchased after losing weight, followed by a video of a user encouraging unhealthy eating and workout habits to fit into a certain size in clothes. After months of exposure to similar eating disorder content, the young user can run a high risk of restricting their own eating and developing anorexia.
As a result of chronic malnutrition, the young social media user may cause permanent damage to their heart and require treatment at an in-patient facility to manage their eating disorder. This is just one example of how quickly social media can harm young users by causing them to develop harmful behaviors stemming from exposure to continually more negative content, resulting in catastrophic harm to their mental health and irreparable damage to their physical health.
Schools and Parents Seek to Hold Social Media Giants Accountable
While major tech companies have reaped the rewards of a skyrocketing user base, parents and educators argue that they and the children in their care have been paying the price. This has led to a growing number of product liability lawsuits being filed against tech companies like Meta. School districts like Seattle Public Schools are pursuing legal action against tech companies who they deem negligent, as well as parents who are frustrated that tech companies seem to be immune from accountability on this issue.
The claims primarily take aim at tech companies’ algorithms, claiming that their addictive, sensational nature has actively harmed young people who are vulnerable to toxic messaging. A significant obstacle to the school districts’ and parents’ efforts is the recent Supreme Court ruling in Gonzalez v. Google. This claim was brought by the parents of a young American who was killed in a terrorist attack by ISIS, and it argued that Google was negligent for allowing and promoting terrorist content on YouTube that likely radicalized the perpetrators of the attack.
The Basis for Social Media Liability for Harmed Youth
The argument that a tech company should be found liable for third-party content on their platform was meant to challenge the existing interpretation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which protects tech companies from such claims. The Gonzalez family had hoped to distinguish between hosting violent and offensive third-party content and using an algorithm to indirectly promote it.
The Supreme Court ruled that they had not presented sufficient evidence to show that Google favored ISIS content or enabled it. While this represents a setback for plaintiffs in social media youth harm claims, the Surgeon General’s report indicates that there may be political resolve to take on this issue.
Recovering Compensation in a Social Media Youth Harm Lawsuit
In the product liability lawsuits against tech companies, school districts are primarily seeking compensation for the resources they have provided students, including:
- Teacher training
- Hiring mental health professionals
- Developing and implementing programs to assist students
- Providing materials and curriculum for mental health programs
The focus of the parents’ product liability lawsuits differs, affording priority to the financial and emotional costs that their individual family suffered. This includes both economic damages, or monetary losses, and non-economic damages, or intangible costs, including:
- Emotional distress
- Loss of quality of life
- Wrongful death
Parents and educators have been on the frontline of the resulting mental health crisis, with limited resources at their disposal. If your child has been harmed as a result of viewing harmful content by a social media algorithm, you may be entitled to seek compensation for your damages. A product liability attorney will be able to evaluate your case, determine the value of your damages, and negotiate on your behalf to maximize your compensation.