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  • Writer's pictureLeslie A. Farber

The Current Trend to Sue Social Media for Mental Health Issues


young girl looking at social media while lying on the couch

The spotlight is on social media and its ills. The tech giants are accused of fostering a mental health crisis by focusing on profits over the psychological harm their platforms cause users. Fed up with a failure on the federal level to pass privacy and safety protection for children online, states, local jurisdictions, and individuals are taking matters into their own hands.

 

While some authorities have passed protective laws (which are facing First Amendment violation hurdles in the courts), many are taking a different approach - filing suit against the social media companies directly. The claims allege that Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, and YouTube build addictive features into the platforms to the detriment of children’s well-being, and that the companies misled the public about their dangers. To date, 41 states, the District of Columbia, New York City, and more than 200 school districts have filed lawsuits, which is on top of individual actions. The concern about the impacts these platforms have on mental health is underscored by the fact that these suits have bipartisan support, which is unusual in the current political climate.

 

The Alleged Harms

The claims cite a variety of symptoms and conditions suffered by young social media users, including:

 

●      Anxiety

●      Depression

●      Eating disorders

●      Suicidal thoughts and attempts

●      Self-harm

●      Insomnia

●      Indifference to education and daily life

 

Medical leaders are also highlighting the negative impacts. The U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek H. Murthy, has advised that excessive social media use in children can lead to an increased risk of poor mental health, such as sleep problems and body dissatisfaction, while NYC’s Health Commissioner, Dr. Ashwin Vasan, designated social media a public health crisis hazard.

 

How the Inherent Design of Social Media Platforms Plays with Your Mental Health

The legal actions allege that the companies deliberately design the features of their platforms to be addictive so that users spend as much time as possible on social media. They use their algorithms to populate feeds with content that keeps users on the platforms longer with excessive scrolling, and encourages compulsive use knowing users are susceptible for approval in the form of “likes” for validation.

 

Research has found that social media can have the same effect on the brain as other dangerous addictive behaviors, such as gambling and substance abuse. The way the platforms are designed can trigger a “reward” response by releasing dopamine, leading to addictive behavior. Additionally, turning to social media for external validation can harm a teen’s self-esteem when they don’t get as many “likes” on a post or photo, and comparing themselves to images in their feed can also cause body image issues. On top of this, seeing others post about fun activities may result in “FOMO” (fear of missing out) triggering feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and depression.

 

A whistleblower confirms the allegations. Their release of Meta (Facebook and Instagram’s parent company) documents in 2021 showed that the company knew Instagram was addictive and worsened body image for some teen users. And teens themselves acknowledge their addiction. According a study conducted by Pew Research Center, one in six teens say their use of YouTube and TikToc is “almost constant.”

 

Suits Are Not Just Being Filed on Behalf of Minors

Adult users who encountered the negative effects of online platforms have also filed actions. A group of dating app users is suing Match Group (which owns Tinder, Hinge, The League, OK Cupid, Plenty of Fish and Match.com) claiming that the company intentionally designs its platforms with “addictive, game-like design features, which lock users into a perpetual pay-to-play loop that prioritizes corporate profits over its marketing promises and customers’ relationship goals.”

 

The lawsuit claims that the apps reward users for continual engagement and penalizes them if they are inactive. For example, people who use Tinder more often benefit from a boost in the algorithm that presents their profile to other users as a “Top Pick”, while inactive users will receive messages that their profile will be hidden if they don’t use the app. The suit alleges that the push notifications are psychological triggers, from false flattery to FOMO, and that the company does not disclose the harmful addictive use and accompanying health risks.

 

Signs to Take Note Of

If you or your child use social media, here are some signs of negative mental health affects to look out for:

 

●      Constantly checking and scrolling on the apps

●      Obsessed with documenting your actions in photos

●      Feeling envious when seeing others’ social media posts

●      Increased anxiety, stress, or feelings of loneliness

●      Hiding how much time you are spending on social media

●      Comparing yourself to others in an unhealthy way

●      Experiencing FOMO

 

Social media can be harmful. The companies aren’t protecting you, and the federal government hasn’t taken steps to either. So, take care and use these platforms judiciously and monitor your children’s use as well.

 

973.707.3322 or LFarber@LFarberLaw.com.

 

The contents of this writing are intended for general information purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion in any specific facts or circumstances.

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