Technology

Meta knew its apps harm teens’ mental health, families allege in suits

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When Alexis Spence was 11, she secretly downloaded Instagram, following advice from other users to evade its age algorithm and disguise the app’s icon as a calculator. Her watchful parents took her devices at night, set parental controls and monitored her texts, but Alexis still developed an addiction, spending sleepless nights scrolling through a feed 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 15, she was hospitalized with thoughts of suicide.

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

Among the documents: Studies showing Instagram was contributing to mental health issues among young adults, especially women. One slide, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, acknowledged that “we make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.” (Facebook played down its own internal findings ahead of congressional hearings last year.)

“Seeing all of 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, of Long Island, are among a wave of plaintiffs that sued Meta this week, citing the Facebook Papers to argue that the company not only addicted them or their children, but did so knowing the harms it could pose. The lawsuits make charges against Meta more frequently seen in consumer product lawsuits or cigarette litigation, but relatively novel to Silicon Valley: that the company produced a defective product and did not warn users about its dangers to children.

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

“When I read the Facebook Papers, it made the asbestos companies look like choirboys,” he said. “It’s one thing to manufacture a product that you know or should have known is unsafe; it’s another thing to intentionally addict children, knowing that their frontal cortexes are undeveloped, with the sole intention of maximizing your profits.”

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

The lead attorney on those cases, Joseph VanZandt, said these eight suits were just the beginning; he predicted the firm would be helping “dozens” more plaintiffs file cases in the coming weeks, most from parents whose children used the apps.

“We view this very much as a defective product, just like if you had any other type of defective consumer product that injured people,” said VanZandt, who previously litigated cases against e-cigarette company Juul. “There’s known risk to [children] to use these platforms and there’s no warnings about that, there’s no warnings to their parents.”

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

The company partners with nonprofits to provide in-app resources to users who search for or post about body-image issues, eating disorders, or self-harm, according to the spokesperson. In the second quarter of 2021, the company also removed 96 percent of content related to self-harm before it was reported. 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. The Spence family’s lawsuit alleges, however, that Meta “purposefully does not verify or check email account authenticity, at least in part, so that it can claim plausible deniability as to the millions of young children using its application that are below the age of thirteen.” Alexis was able to create accounts before she was 13 using a fake email address and a school email that lacked an inbox.

Another finding in the Facebook Papers was that the company saw teens opening multiple accounts — often known as ‘finstas,’ short for fake Instagrams — as a potential driver for growth. Alexis had multiple accounts, which the Spences’ lawsuit alleges only deepened her mental health problems. On her finsta, they argue, she was exposed further to the app’s algorithms and was able to hide her usage from her parents even when they discovered her main account.

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

“At the time, we didn’t really even know that this was a social media and Instagram problem,” she said. “But behind closed doors, Facebook had documentation: how addicted these kids were and how they can keep them more addicted and how can they get them to have multiple accounts.”

“It really wasn’t until the Facebook whistleblower Francis Haugen came out that we actually started understanding and looking and saying, ‘Wow, that’s what we went through with Alexis,’” Kathleen Spence added.

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 outlined in the documents. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called it a “false picture of the company that is being painted,” especially in the realm of child safety.

VanZandt said the Facebook Papers were “incredibly beneficial” to building his firm’s cases, though he argued “the significance of what’s at stake here is going to justify substantial discovery into the company.” He said he will seek to take depositions from employees and review more internal documents.

The lawsuits this month are not 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 thing unusual about Alexis’s case is that she’s here to tell you about it,” said Bergman, who is also representing Rodriguez.

Bergman contended that parents like Kathleen Spence can do “everything right,” but the documents show social media companies are working to subvert that.

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

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