Families Fighting Social Media Companies Over Kids’ Mental Health

Social media is, in theory, a fantastic way to stay up to date with long distance family and friends, discover new places to explore, or learn tips that make daily tasks easier. With increasingly more presence, accessibility, and utilization, it’s nearly necessary if we wish to remain connected to the world around us. What happens though, when this overwhelmingly powerful  platform lands in the wrong hands, those that are young, impressionable, and susceptible to the dangers held beneath the surface?

In the culture of today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a significant amount of people, especially young people, “unplugged.” With a swipe of a screen or a press of a button, the worldwide web lights up our devices, providing access to all we could possibly hope to learn—and even more we wouldn’t.

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The Monolith Menace

In August of 2020 14-year-old Englyn Roberts died by suicide. Her parents, Toney and Brandy, told Sharyn Alfonsi, host of CBS News’ 60 Minutes, they had no idea that the bright and sunny baby of the family, was struggling with depression and thoughts of suicide. It was only after they searched through her phone that they found a simulation video of a woman demonstrating how to hang oneself. A video that according to Brandy, was still circulating online roughly a year and a half after her daughter’s death and was only taken down in December of 2021.

Alexis Spence, now 20, developed depression and an eating disorder at age 12 after Instagram algorithms led her to pro-anorexia accounts from an innocent search for exercise tips. Her parents had given her the phone to communicate with them after school and middle school teachers themselves, had taken precautions by setting up age restrictions and a schedule in which young Alexis was allowed to use her smart phone. In the same 60 Minutes segment, aired earlier this week, Alexis told Alfonsi that she learned “pretty quickly” how to sneak phone use and override the parental controls which ultimately contributed to a downward spiral into dangerous waters.

These stories are just two of the more than 1,200 families pressing charges against big social media companies such as Snapchat, TikTok, YouTube, Roblox, and Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram. According to 60 Minutes, over 150 cases will be moving forward after the start of the new year. All of the companies contacted for the story declined comment.

Evidence That Companies Know Their Influence And Impact On Youth

Last fall, previous Facebook data scientist, Frances Haugen testified in front of a Senate subcommittee that the major social media company actively “…harms children, sows division and undermines democracy in pursuit of breakneck growth and ‘astronomical profits.” A Facebook employee for nearly two years, Haugen’s job was to research how foreign adversaries utilized misinformation that was promoted through the company’s algorithms. Hardly the first ex-employee to blow the whistle on the tech giant, Haugen’s testimony was backed by dozens of research documents she’d copied before she left; accurately coined “The Facebook Files,” these papers proved that Facebook “…intentionally hides vital information from the public, from the US government, and from governments around the world.”

Executives of the company such as Monika Bickert and Mark Zuckerberg himself released statements that the information Haugen provided was taken out of context. The leaked research, however, shows otherwise. In one survey, 13.5% of teenage girls in the UK and 6% in America responded that their suicidal thoughts increased after using Instagram. Another found that roughly 32% of teen girls (presumably globally), or 1 in 3, experienced increased negative body image issues after scrolling through the photo-sharing platform.

According to the Wall Street Journal, over 40% of Instagram’s users are 22 years old and younger with approximately 22 million teenagers logging in each day, placing the app in a high profile, incredibly influential position for young people around the world.

Social Media Victims Center: The Attorney Taking On Social Media Giants

After reading the Facebook Files, attorney Matt Bergman, a product liability lawyer, started the Social Media Victims Center to aid and support families suffering at the hands of social media companies’ negligence. Representing the Spence and Roberts family, as well as the hundreds of other families pressing charges, Bergman told Alfonsi, “Time and time again, when they have an opportunity to choose between safety of our kids and profits, they always choose profits…I’m all for parental responsibility. But these products are explicitly designed to evade parental authority.”

Sometime next year Bergman and his team will begin the process for a federal case against Meta and others. This multi-million-dollar lawsuit, he says, is about more than just the money, but a plea for policy change. At this time, he outlines a three-pronged approach that addresses the lackadaisical, easily evaded age verification, the harmful and unnecessary algorithms, and a better way of ensuring that parents are informed. “Let’s be realistic, you’re never gonna have social media platforms be 100% safe. But, you know, these changes would make them safer.”

Social Media Addiction? Get The Help You Need

Despite it not being listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), research shows a strong correlation between social media use and signs/symptoms of other addictive behaviors. Because it is largely the way of the world and a huge form of communication these days, daily social media use might be normal or expected. Trouble arises when the scrolling and thoughts of the scrolling become excessive and consuming. Add in the influx of influencers and edited material designed to gain traction and attention and it’s no wonder teens in particular experience severe mental health consequences.

If you or someone you love is exhibiting signs of a social media addiction, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. There are resources available to assist you. Learn about online therapy and how it can be used to treat social media addiction, from the comfort and privacy of your own home.

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Hannah Zwemer

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  • Hannah Zwemer graduated with a BA in dance and a minor in educational studies from Denison University in 2017 before moving to Orlando to work as a performer at Walt Disney World. While at Disney, she discovered her passion for writing and pursued a master’s degree in creative writing with an emphasis in nonfiction. She is passionate about helping people in any way she can while simultaneously sharing stories that remind us that the best of us are still only human.

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