Because of technology, kids today are, in many ways, growing up in an entirely different world than their parents did. While some of these differences are for the better, the technology that affects kids’ lives on a daily basis can pose serious dangers. The rising number of lawsuits filed by the parents and families of children and teens over social media self-harm illustrates how severe the effects of social media exposure and addiction can be.
Why Are Today’s Kids at Risk for Harm Arising Out of Social Media?
There are numerous reasons children and teenagers are vulnerable to the harmful effects of social media, which can include lowered self-esteem, mental health issues, eating disorders, addiction, self-harm and suicidal ideation.
Growing Up With the Constant Presence of Social Media
Young people today are something of a captive audience for the messages spread across social media channels. Current children, teens, and young adults constitute the first generation of consumers growing up with social media, smartphones, and all the other trappings of the digital era.
Previous generations had experienced a time before social media became pervasive, making it easier to distinguish between social media interactions and the “real” (offline) world. Kids who have always known smartphones and social media don’t have this perspective. When social media has been part of your life from your earliest memories, it’s a lot harder to dismiss cyberbullying comments and harmful content as “just” online interactions—especially during the critical years of adolescence, when young people are discovering or establishing their identities.
Social Media Addiction and Adolescent Brain Development
Another reason children and teens are more susceptible to social media harm is because of the vulnerability of the adolescent brain to social media addiction. Addiction to social media occurs in the same way that other addictions do, according to Harvard University. Social media interactions, like real-life social interactions, activate the pathways in the rewards center of the brain and produce the neurotransmitter dopamine, which helps motivate the repetition of the behavior. This potential for addiction is only increased by the use of addictive psychological tactics, such as engagement-driven algorithms and notification features.
Adults, too, can fall victim to these addictive psychological tactics—but they aren’t at risk in the same way children and teens are. According to the American Psychological Association, it’s between the ages of 10 and 12 that the brain undergoes changes in the number of dopamine and oxytocin receptors that amplify the pleasurable feelings that go along with “likes” and other positive (or at least, perceived as positive) social media engagement. In children and teens, unlike adults, the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that can regulate these emotional responses—isn’t mature yet, the American Psychological Association reported.
In terms of brain development, pre-teens and teens are the perfect targets for addictive products, and some social media sites have been accused of doing exactly that—“intentionally targeting children”—despite the mounting evidence of potential social media harm, according to NPR.
Why would a social media company target children, knowing that this age group is particularly vulnerable to social media addiction and impressionable when it comes to body image and self-esteem? Facebook whistleblower and former employee Frances Haugen identified “astronomical profits” from advertising revenue as the company’s motivation, according to NPR.
How Social Media Seriously Harms Your Mental Health
Social media exposure has been linked to several types of serious harm among children and teens. Researchers have determined that excessive and problematic social media use, in particular, is associated with the following types of harm:
Clinical anxiety: A diagnosable mental health condition characterized by excessive or intrusive fears and worries
Clinical depression: A diagnosable mental health condition characterized by persistent low mood and loss of interest in activities
Low self-esteem: A negative perception of one’s self in its entirety, which may contribute to other concerning mental health issues or unhealthy behaviors
Poor body image: Negative thoughts and feelings about one’s own body, which can contribute to eating disorders and other mental health issues or unhealthy behaviors
Eating disorders: Diagnosable medical conditions like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder, or otherwise disordered eating patterns such as meal-skipping and obsessive attitudes about exercise, that can affect a person’s physical and mental health
Social media addiction: Excessive and problematic social media usage that persists despite negative consequences and which can contribute to mental health issues, eating disorders, and self-harm or suicidal behaviors
Self-harm: Intentionally inflicting physical injury upon oneself
Suicidal ideation: Thoughts of taking deliberate actions to take one’s own life through any means, which may progress to actual attempts to take one’s own life
In an emergency situation, like suspected self-harm or suicidal ideation, please seek immediate assistance by calling 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Why Are Lawsuits Targeting Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Other Social Media Companies?
The mounting research studies, along with whistleblower testimony and, of course, the individual instances of serious harm suffered by children and teens, have given rise to social media lawsuit cases. Experienced attorneys expect even more social media lawsuits to be filed.
Families have sued companies like Meta, Inc. and Snap, Inc. over the part they played in the suicides of kids who developed social media addictions, eating disorders, and mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, Bloomberg reported. Other lawsuits against social media companies have arisen out of cyberbullying that was made possible by social media messaging apps’ allegedly “dangerous” features, like anonymous messaging capabilities, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Some states have introduced legislation that, if passed, could allow families to sue social media companies for children’s social media addiction even if other serious harms haven’t occurred.
Attorneys are currently reviewing potential social media lawsuit claims. If you have questions about your family’s legal right to hold social media companies accountable for the harm young users have suffered, consider consulting a social media lawsuit lawyer.