Youth, Social Media & Mental Health—What’s the Connection?
Technology company Meta and its social media platforms, Facebook and Instagram, knowingly put young users in harm’s way to generate billions of dollars in profits.
They used addictive psychological tactics to increase adolescent, teen, and young adult usage; changed algorithms to collect their data unethically; and added features to prevent parents from exercising their rights and duties to monitor and limit their children’s use. As a result, our children are becoming addicted to social media, driving them toward a mental health crisis.
It’s time these social media giants are held accountable for failing to protect our young, vulnerable, and at-risk children.
Why are Lawsuits Targeting Facebook and Instagram?
Today’s adolescents are the first generation of consumers to have grown up entirely in the digital era. They have come of age alongside social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and others. They are tech-savvy and well-versed in the language of online communities.
Facebook and Instagram are among the most popular social networking products, with more than 2 billion combined users worldwide. It is estimated that nine out of 10 teens say they have used social media. According to a 2018 survey by Pew Research Center, 45% of high school students said they are online “almost constantly.” Common Sense Media’s research notes that social media is “an integral part of most teens’ lives,” showing that 45% of teens use social media every day.
Social media platforms have a captive audience with our youth. That comes with a great responsibility to ensure their safety and well-being. Unfortunately, Facebook and Instagram have hidden information from the public about the negative impact their platforms have on young users’ mental health.
Instead, Meta and its platforms drove teens’ interest in their products to increase their profit and refused to take steps to prevent harm.
How are Facebook and Instagram Harming Youth?
Controlling young people for profit
Meta Platforms, Inc. (Meta), formerly known as Facebook, Inc., knew from its own research the ill effects its social media platforms were having on a significant percentage of young users, especially teen girls. Yet, it refused to take steps to reduce the harm.
Meta is considered one of the Big Five American information technology companies, alongside Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft. The company generated $69.7 billion from advertising in 2019, more than 98% of its total revenue for the year. In other words, Meta makes billions of dollars marketing its user base—along with detailed data on their likes and interests—to advertisers to increase its profits.
Employing addictive psychological tactics to increase the use of their product
Platforms like Facebook and Instagram use email and text alerts and push notifications to inform users when they receive “likes” or “mentions.” According to a recent Harvard University study, when someone posts on social media and receives positive feedback, the brain releases dopamine, the body’s “feel-good” hormone, rewarding the behavior.
A similar brain conditioning occurs with addictive drugs. The brain releases dopamine when addictive drugs are consumed, reinforcing the connection between the drug and the resulting pleasure.
Similar to alcohol or drugs, people can become addicted to social media when they begin to use social networking sites as a coping mechanism to relieve stress, loneliness, or depression. Continuous use worsens moods and eventually interferes with relationships and work or school tasks. This encourages users to engage more with social media in search of relief, creating a vicious cycle that fosters a dependency on and addiction to social media.
Changing algorithms to use consumers’ data unethically
Facebook and Instagram are sneaky. They use advanced computer rules and processes, also known as algorithms and artificial intelligence, to collect and analyze users’ data. This information is used to assemble virtual files on their users, covering hundreds if not thousands of user-specific data segments. This data collection and analysis allows advertisers to tailor advertising and designate advertising dollars to very specific categories of users.
Many of these data segments are collected by Meta, scrutinizing each user’s activity on and off the platform. This assessment includes behavioral surveillance that users are not even aware of, like navigation paths, watch time, and hover time.
The bottom line is that the larger a social media platform’s user database grows, the more time users spend on the database. The more detailed information that platform can extract from its users, the more money it makes.
Failing to protect young, vulnerable, and at-risk users
Parents are essentially defenseless against the tactics of Facebook and Instagram. They have features such as disappearing or time-sensitive messaging that prevent parents from exercising their rights and duties to monitor and limit their children’s use. Once their children become addicted to social media, it’s too late.
With the delicate, developing nature of the teenage brain combined with Facebook and Instagram’s addictive tricks, a generation of children have been trapped by products that have a long-lasting negative impact on their mental health.
Social Media Addiction Symptoms
The symptoms of social media addiction among minors are the same as the symptoms of addictive gaming listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s 2013 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the manual used by mental health professionals to diagnose mental disorders:
- Preoccupation with social media and withdrawal symptoms (sadness, anxiety, irritability) when the device is taken away or use is not possible.
- The need to spend more time using social media to satisfy the urge.
- Inability to reduce social media usage or unsuccessful attempts to quit.
- Giving up other activities or loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities due to social media usage.
- Continuing to use social media despite problems.
- Deceiving family members or others about the amount of time spent on social media.
- Using social media to relieve negative moods, such as guilt or hopelessness.
- Jeopardizing school or work performance or relationships due to social media usage.
Social Media Addiction Side Effects
Like many other addictions, social media addiction is linked to numerous mental health problems, such as:
- Eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, etc.)
- Body dysmorphia (obsessive focus on a perceived flaw in appearance)
- Lack of focus, inability to concentrate
- Self-harm, thoughts of self-harm
- Suicide, attempted suicide, suicide ideation
A growing body of research backs up these findings:
- According to a 2019 study published in JAMA Psychiatry, teenagers who use social media more than three hours a day are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, aggression, and antisocial behavior.
- A 2018 Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology study found that heavy use of social media is more likely to trigger feelings of isolation, depression, and anxiety in young users rather than feelings of connectivity.
- A recent study among middle school students found that those with social media accounts were significantly more likely to develop eating disorder-related behaviors and over-thinking of body weight and shape. The most common social media account for those students was Instagram.
- A 2017 review of numerous studies published in the Industrial Psychiatry Journal found that selfies are the reason young people seek plastic surgery, with a 10% uptick in nose jobs, a 7% increase in hair transplants, and a 6% increase in eyelid surgery. The study also found that girls who spend more time on Facebook were more likely to suffer from poor physical self-image and had a greater desire to lose weight.
- A study published in JAMA among 2,500 high school students found a correlation between cell phone use and ADHD symptoms. The more time teens spent on their phones checking social media, texting, or viewing online images or videos, the more likely they were to exhibit symptoms of ADHD.
- A 2018 review of nine studies on social media’s effects on teens found that “online social networking…leads to increased exposure to and engagement in self-harm behavior due to users receiving negative messages promoting self-harm, emulating self-injurious behavior of others, and adopting self-harm practices from shared videos.”
- Researchers of the previous review further concluded that “greater time spent on online social networking promotes self-harm behavior and suicidal ideation in vulnerable adolescents.”
- Suicide ideation among teenagers in the United States has increased 25% from 2009 to 2017, according to a Child Trends study, which falls in step with the increased usage of social media among teenagers during that time.
The Facebook Whistleblower
In April 2021, a former Facebook employee resigned from the company and released a massive trove of internal documents to the Wall Street Journal. Those documents included research reports, online employee discussions, and drafts of presentations to senior management. They detailed how the social media platform lied or hid information from the public about several concerning matters, including its impact on young users’ mental health.
The WSJ published a series of reports based on those documents revealing how Facebook and Instagram knew of the problems with the platform but failed to fix any of the issues and, in some cases, made them worse.
The investigation revealed that Meta execs knew—based on their own research—that Instagram was toxic to young adults and teens, especially women and girls, largely harming their sense of worth and mental health. Also, the researchers found that features on Instagram that help foster the platform’s addictive nature are among the most harmful to young people. An example is Instagram’s Explore page, which offers posts based on users’ interests. Yet, the company never made this information available to lawmakers or the public.
On Oct. 3, 2021, CBS’ 60 Minutes aired an interview revealing the identity of the Facebook whistleblower—Frances Haugen. The data scientist worked as a product manager on Facebook’s Civic Integrity team. The following day, Haugen testified at a U.S. Senate hearing. She urged lawmakers to get involved and help solve the “crisis” created by her former employer’s products.
Haugen explained how Facebook’s algorithm prioritized creating more user activity than their safety. For example, she said that young users could be easily steered from relatively innocent content, such as healthy recipes, to content promoting anorexia.
“I came forward because I recognized a frightening truth: almost no one outside of Facebook knows what happens inside Facebook. The company’s leadership keeps vital information from the public, the U.S. government, its shareholders, and governments around the world.”Data Scientist and Facebook Whistleblower Frances Haugen in testimony to U.S. Senate Committee
Aftermath of the Facebook Whistleblower Testimony
Following her testimony before the U.S. Senate and the WSJ’s coverage, Haugen filed complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission. She claimed Facebook misled investors and advertisers by hiding or lying about what it knew about how its platforms were being used.
A bipartisan group of state attorneys general also announced an investigation into Meta for promoting Instagram despite knowing the detrimental effects the platform was having on users.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, also issued recommendations that social media and other technology companies help minimize the harmful effects of using their products. He urged the companies to prioritize young users’ well-being and share their data about the impact of social media with independent researchers.
“It’s time we stop trying to make a profit on kids’ developing brains. For the first time in human history, we have given up autonomous control over our social relationships and interactions, and we now allow machine learning and artificial intelligence to make decisions for us. We have already seen how this has created tremendous vulnerabilities to our way of life. It’s even scarier how this may be changing brain development for an entire generation of youth.”American Psychological Association’s Chief Science Officer Mitch Prinstein
Youth and Social Media Lawyers
Beasley Allen was founded on helping those who need help the most. That is why we are actively filing cases to address the harms of social media on young users detailed during the Senate committee’s hearing. It’s time Meta and its subsidiaries, Facebook and Instagram, are held responsible for the harms they have caused our youth.
If you or your child has experienced anxiety, depression, ADD/ADHD, eating disorders, body dysmorphia, self-harm, or suicidal thoughts due to social media addiction, we can help. Our firm has the resources to represent clients across the country while never losing sight of the individual. Contact us today for a no-cost consultation.