Many children spend substantial amounts of time on social media each day. The algorithms of social media platforms are generally designed to encourage users to stay on a platform and keep scrolling through content for as long as possible. This means that they will see more of the ads from which the platforms generate revenue. While social media platforms increase their profits as a result, people who get sucked into endless scrolling may suffer harm to their physical and mental health.
Excessive social media use can pose especially serious risks to children, whose brains are not fully developed. When they stop using social media, they may face problems similar to those faced by anyone trying to stop using an addictive substance, such as anxiety and mood changes. Some concerning studies have suggested that adolescents and teenagers may face increased risks of depression, self-harm, and even suicide from excessive social media use.
The Facebook Whistleblower
In 2021, former Facebook employee Frances Haugen testified in Congressional hearings that Facebook knew that its platforms negatively affected teenagers, yet it continued to make profit-based decisions that undermined their wellbeing. This opened the eyes of many people to how these companies operate.
Lawsuits Based on Social Media Addiction
During the course of 2022, various teenagers and their parents filed lawsuits against Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, as well as other social media platforms. The lawsuits are based on a theory of products liability and allege that the platforms are unreasonably dangerous to children due to inherent “design defects” that create a risk of addiction. They also argue that Meta and its peers acted unreasonably in failing to warn children and parents about the risk of addiction from excessive social media use.
The success of these lawsuits remains uncertain. Children and their parents may have trouble proving the existence of a scientifically valid “addiction” to the defendant’s platform. Expert witnesses on both sides may play a key role in this regard. In addition, it may be challenging to establish causation leading from a proven addiction to the harm that the child suffered. Many factors often combine to cause a child to engage in self-harm or contemplate suicide.
No Immunity Defense
A controversial federal law grants immunity to social media platforms from liability for content posted by third parties. This law likely does not apply to social media addiction lawsuits because the harm allegedly arises from the algorithms developed by these companies, rather than content posted by others.
If the children and their parents ultimately prevail, they may be able to recover compensation for economic and non-economic harm. Economic damages could include the costs of treatment for physical and mental health conditions, such as therapy, medications, and hospital bills. Non-economic damages could cover the intangible pain and suffering and emotional distress that a child experienced. If a child suffered a tragic death due to social media addiction, parents could potentially recover damages through a wrongful death claim.
Multidistrict Litigation for Social Media Addiction Lawsuits
In the fall of 2022, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation decided to consolidate the social media addiction lawsuits across the country into a multidistrict litigation. Since most of the defendants are based in Silicon Valley and the San Francisco area, the Northern District of California will review the litigation. Consolidating cases that present parallel claims and theories may make the process more efficient and prevent the risk of different outcomes in different jurisdictions. The social media platforms likely will try to get the litigation dismissed based on inadequate evidence. If they cannot get a dismissal, a settlement may be reached before the cases go to trial.
Parents concerned about the effects of social media addiction on their child may want to keep an eye on how the multidistrict litigation unfolds. The outcome likely will determine whether they can bring similar claims against these platforms.