Meta faces lawsuits alleging it knew about teen mental health impact

Placeholder while article actions are loading

When Alexis Spence was 11, she secretly downloaded Instagram, on the advice of other users to bypass the age algorithm and disguise the app icon as a calculator. Her watchful parents took her devices at night, set parental controls and checked her texts, but Alexis still developed an addiction and spent sleepless nights scrolling through a feed that the family says glorified anorexia and self-harm.

She initially became moody and distant, but that eventually developed into anxiety, depression, and an eating disorder. At the age of 15, she was hospitalized with suicidal thoughts.

Now 19 and a sophomore in college, she is still working to recover from severe mental health issues. But when she read the Facebook Papers, a trove of company documents leaked last year by whistleblower Frances Haugen, she said she saw herself in Facebook’s internal investigation into the effects of its apps on teens.

Among the documents: Studies showing Instagram contributed to mental health problems in young adults, especially women. One slide, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, acknowledged that “we exacerbate body image problems for one in three teenage girls.” (Facebook downplayed its own internal findings ahead of congressional hearings last year.)

“When they saw all the knowledge that Meta had and looking back at my past and remembering everything that happened to me, they knew exactly what was happening,” Spence said.

Spence and her parents, from Long Island, are among a wave of plaintiffs who have sued Meta this week, citing the Facebook Papers to claim that the company not only made them or their children addicted, but that they did. , knowing the damage it could cause. The lawsuits bring charges against Meta more commonly seen in consumer product or cigarette lawsuits, but relatively new to Silicon Valley: that the company produced a defective product and failed to warn users of the dangers to children.

Spence’s attorney Matthew Bergman, who founded the Social Media Victims Law Center, compared the case to the 25 years he spent filing lawsuits against asbestos companies.

“When I read the Facebook Papers, the asbestos companies looked like choirboys,” he said. “It’s one thing to make a product that you know or should have known is unsafe; It’s another thing to intentionally make kids addicted, knowing their frontal cortex is undeveloped, with the sole intention of maximizing your profits.”

In addition to the Spence family, plaintiffs in eight different states have filed lawsuits since June 3 against Meta, represented by Beasley Allen, a law firm based in Montgomery, Ala.

The lead attorney in those cases, Joseph VanZandt, said these eight lawsuits were just the beginning; he predicted the company would help “dozens” of prosecutors file cases in the coming weeks, most of them from parents whose kids were using the apps.

“We very much view this as a defective product, just like having another type of defective consumer product that injures people,” said VanZandt, who previously sued e-cigarette company Juul. “There is a known risk of” [children] to use these platforms and there are no warnings for that, there are no warnings for their parents.”

A Meta spokesperson declined to comment on Spences’ lawsuit or the eight filed by Beasley Allen, citing the active process.

The company partners with nonprofit organizations to provide in-app resources to users who search for or post about body image problems, eating disorders or self-harm, the spokesperson said. In the second quarter of 2021, the company also removed 96 percent of content related to self-harm before reporting. It has also strengthened parental controls and uses AI to prevent young children from joining its platforms.

The minimum age to join Facebook and Instagram is 13 years old. However, the Spence family lawsuit alleges that Meta “deliberately does not verify or verify the authenticity of email accounts, at least in part, so that it can claim plausible deniability regarding the millions of young children using the application who are under the age of thirteen.” .” Alexis was able to create accounts before she was 13 with a fake email address and a school email that had no inbox.

Another finding in the Facebook Papers was that the company saw teens who open multiple accounts — often known as “finstas,” short for fake Instagrams — as a potential engine for growth. Alexis had multiple accounts, the lawsuit against Spences alleging only exacerbated her mental health issues. On her finsta, they claim, she was further exposed to the app’s algorithms and was able to hide her use from her parents, even when they discovered her main account.

As Alexis’s mental health deteriorated, her parents and doctors unsuccessfully searched for a cause, overlooking the effects of social media, according to her mother, Kathleen Spence.

“At the time, we didn’t even know this was an issue with social media and Instagram,” she said. “But behind closed doors, Facebook had documentation on how addicted these kids were and how to keep them more addicted and how to get them to have multiple accounts.”

“It wasn’t until Facebook whistleblower Francis Haugen came out that we really started to understand and look and say, ‘Wow, that’s what we’ve been through with Alexis,’” added Kathleen Spence.

Haugen testified before Congress last fall that Facebook prioritized its bottom line over the safety of its users, including children. The company vehemently denied the allegations, noting that Haugen did not work on many of the issues described in the documents. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called it a “false image of the company being painted,” especially on child safety.

VanZandt said the Facebook Papers were “incredibly helpful” in building his company’s business, though he argued that “the significance of what’s at stake here will justify a substantial discovery in the business.” He said he will try to include statements from employees and look at more internal documents.

This month’s lawsuits aren’t the first to rely on the leaked documents to build a case against Meta. A Connecticut woman, Tammy Rodriguez, sued Meta and Snap in January after her 11-year-old died by suicide.

“The only unusual thing about Alexis’s case is that she’s here to tell you about it,” said Bergman, who also represents Rodriguez.

Bergman claimed that parents like Kathleen Spence “can do anything right,” but the documents show that social media companies are working to undermine that.

“She did everything that would be expected of a reasonable parent,” Bergman said. “But these products are explicitly designed to frustrate those efforts, to Alexis’ disadvantage.”

Leave a Comment