A Massive Lawsuit Could Hold Social Media Platforms Liable for Harming Teen Girls

One plaintiff said using Facebook and Instagram led her to develop disordered eating, depression, suicidal throughts and severe anxiety.

Someone holds a phone with an Instagram account open surrounded by children's toys.
A new lawsuit could change how social media platforms interact with minors. NurPhoto via Getty Images

A lawsuit playing out in a California court could make social media platforms liable for the harm they cause their youngest users. The suit so far has more than 80 plaintiffs but lawyers are currently writing a new complaint in which others can sign on, Axios reported.

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In October, dozens of individual lawsuits targeting Facebook (Meta (META)), Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat and YouTube, as well as their parent companies, were combined into one suit. The plaintiffs allege the social media apps are defective and companies fail to warn users of potential harm. The sites and apps are designed to maximize screen time so the platforms can become addictive to young users, which in serious cases can lead to emotional and physical harm, according to the suit. Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, was the sole defendant listed in 70 percent of the original lawsuits.

Many of the cases were filed after Frances Haugen, a Meta whistleblower, testified before Congress the company knew how it impacted children and did little about it. An internal study leaked by Haugen found 13.5 percent of teenage girls in the U.K. said their suicidal thoughts escalated with the use of Instagram, and 17 percent of teenage girls said their eating disorders worsened.

“It is clear that Facebook prioritizes profit over the well-being of children and all users,” she said.

Up for debate in this case is whether social media platforms are products or not, according to Axios. The plaintiff’s lawyers must also argue the companies are liable for the harm their products cause.

Brianna Murden, who is suing Meta, said using Facebook and Instagram led her to develop disordered eating, depression, suicidal thoughts and severe anxiety, among other symptoms. She began using the app as a 10 years old and is now 21. When Murden’s lawyers filed the petition to consolidate the cases in August, there were only 27 other plaintiffs. By October, there were 84. More will be allowed to sign on with the new complaint.

Social media platforms have been under fire in recent months for failing to protect children’s privacy and data. In September, Ireland’s Data Protection Commission fined Meta 405 million euros ($440 million) for allegedly mishandling children’s data. The same month, the U.K.’s Information Commissioner’s Office threatened TikTok with a £27 million ($29 million) fine for violating children’s privacy laws and not monitoring their self-imposed age limit.

Meta is changing how its advertisers reach teens as part of a larger campaign to make its apps more age appropriate. Beginning in February, advertisers will not be able to use gender as a targeting option. The company previously removed the ability to target based on interests and activities. Meta said these moves are in response to research, children’s rights principles and global regulation, though it didn’t elaborate further.

A Massive Lawsuit Could Hold Social Media Platforms Liable for Harming Teen Girls