Parenting in the age of social media is no easy task. Social platforms can make kids vulnerable to all kinds of dangers, from misinformation to cyberbullying, and now some concerned parents are speaking out. Last week, Meta Platforms Inc., the company behind Facebook, Instagram and other apps, was hit with multiple lawsuits from parents who say the brand’s algorithms make kids addicted to social media and lead to dangerous consequences.
More than eight lawsuits filed in different courts across the U.S. allege that exposure to Meta social media platforms contributed to kids’ eating disorders, sleep problems and mental health issues. One family, who filed suit in California, says their 19-year-old daughter developed an Instagram addiction starting at age 11 that fueled battles with “addiction, anxiety, depression, self-harm, eating disorders and suicidal ideation.” They say their daughter was able to create her Instagram account without their knowledge and despite the platform’s minimum age requirement of 13.
Another family in Tennessee alleges that social media addiction caused their 15-year-old to suffer multiple periods of suicidal ideation, self-harm, disordered eating and insomnia. In addition to the lawsuits filed in Tennessee and California, lawsuits have also been filed in Texas, Georgia, Colorado, Florida, Delaware, Illinois and Missouri.
Attorneys for several of the families claim Meta executives are aware of the potential detrimental health effects of using their platforms. The lawsuits cite The Facebook Papers, internal documents shared by a company whistleblower and published by the Wall Street Journal in 2021. These documents allege that Facebook executives commissioned studies on the potential harm caused by content on the platform and at least one study showed that 1 in 5 teens report worse self image as a result of using Instagram.
News of the lawsuits sparked an important discussion about who is ultimately responsible for keeping kids safe online. Some argue that social media companies need much more oversight while others say parents need to set firmer limits when it comes to social media use.
“I will be the first to admit how impractical it is to monitor a teen’s social media use,” one person writes. “Hell, even Google limits a parent’s ‘control’ at the ripe old age of 13. But we have to be more accountable as parents for allowing this.”
“Time for parents to start taking action,” another person says. “Great to see parents of a NY teenager sue Meta after alleging that she suffered [an] eating disorder because of Instagram addiction. Keeping kids off social media is a huge problem when it’s so easy for them to access.”
Parents may differ on how much they should monitor kids’ social media use, but it’s clear that many of them are letting kids have access to these platforms. Nearly half of kids ages 10-12 years old and 32% of kids ages 7-9 years old use social media apps, according to a poll by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. Meanwhile, 1 in 6 parents polled say they don’t use any of the parental controls available on social media.
It’s still not entirely clear how social media use impacts kids long term, but research points to inherent risks in allowing kids on various apps. One study shows that kids under 11 who use Instagram and Snapchat may be more likely to exhibit “problematic digital behaviors,” like joining sites their parents wouldn’t approve of and unsympathetic online interactions. They also face an increased risk of online harassment. In another study, social media users ages 14-24 report increased feelings of anxiety, depression, poor body image and loneliness from using social media.
The question at the heart of the Meta lawsuits is how much social media companies know about the potential risks platforms carry for kids and teens and how these platforms work or do not work to mitigate the danger. Parents certainly have some control over how kids use social media, but the safety of apps is important, too. The outcomes of these lawsuits could play a major role in determining how people let kids engage online in the future.