Lawsuits in CA hold social media liable for addicting kids

Social media companies like TikTok and Instagram have been accused in federal lawsuits of employing design features that entice young people to compulsively use their platforms.

Social media companies like TikTok and Instagram have been accused in federal lawsuits of employing design features that entice young people to compulsively use their platforms.


Monica Morong, an East Sacramento mom, doesn’t want her four young daughters wasting their lives glued to social media.

Dr. Kimberly Buss, a Sacramento family physician, has seen adolescents and their parents ripped apart by disagreements over social platforms.

Ellie Sutliff, a C.K. McClatchy High School senior, knows firsthand the effects of an addiction to online social networks.

All of them want major social media companies to change their practices.

How much, if any, of that change will happen could hinge on a case centered in a Northern California courtroom.

Late last month, lawyers in Oakland clashed during a hearing over the fate of hundreds of federal lawsuits from California and many other states. The cases accuse social media companies of employing design features that entice young people to compulsively use their platforms, leading to mental and physical harm.

U.S. District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers will decide if the lawsuits can move forward. At the recent hearing, she indicated that at least some would.

In Sacramento, many residents share the concerns driving the cases in federal court. They acknowledge the potential benefits of social media, but also are acutely aware of its risks, particularly for children.

Morong, who has two teenagers, tries to limit the amount of time they spend on their most-used applications: Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat. During conversations about the platforms, she said she also cautions them with the advice: “You are what you watch, so be selective.”

She prays those words will pay off. Yet she also knows parents, like her can’t monitor everything children are watching, clicking on and scrolling past. Instead, she wants to trust that social media companies are helping to protect her children.

“I think the ultimate solution is the design,” Morong said. “The better the technology is designed with kids in mind the less I, as a parent, have to worry and stress.”

‘I was addicted’

How the platforms are designed is at the crux of the federal lawsuits.

Lawyers representing young people and their parents argue the makers of Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Snapchat and YouTube knowingly used algorithms and other features to hook children to their platforms in the name of profit.

That, in turn, is fueling rising rates of mental health issues among young people, the lawyers allege, including sadness and suicidal thoughts.

Buss, the physician who is also a mother of three children, said adolescent brains are not fully developed, making them particularly vulnerable to what they see on the popular platforms.

“If we don’t have any guardrails,” she said, “then there’s no way to know if what the algorithms are feeding them is supporting their well-being.”

Sutliff, 17, said her use of social media hit an unhealthy point during her sophomore year.

She would stay up well past midnight, scrolling on her phone through Snapchat and TikTok. She created an Instagram account without her parents’ permission. She became anxious and depressed. But Sutliff couldn’t turn away.

“I was addicted,” she said.

Her parents intervened and took away her phone for a month. They prohibited her from having social media platforms for a few more. Now, a couple years later, she has access to them again, but with parental controls on her phone.

“I am still very pro social media,” Sutliff said. “But I think there needs to be a healthier way to use it.”

She agrees that makers of social media platforms should be held liable in court.

Undecided question

Attorneys for those companies have a multi-layered defense.

They argue the businesses are not legally required to prevent users from becoming addicted to their applications. They also dispute any causal link between their platforms and the alleged harms.

What’s more, they claim the companies are shielded from liability. First, by a federal law that generally grants immunity to online service providers for content posted by users. And secondly, by the First Amendment, which protects speech on their platforms.

Lawyers suing the companies argue they are targeting “defectively designed products,” not the content itself.

That debate raises an undecided question, said Leslie Jacobs, a professor at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law:

“Where is the line between the speech doing the harm and the crafting of the mechanism that carries the speech?”

Last month, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge weighed in on that dispute while overseeing cases filed in state court alleging harm caused by social media addiction. The judge said the companies were not protected under the federal law or the First Amendment from allegations in the lawsuits. But she did not agree they were liable for everything alleged.

Rogers, the judge in Oakland, suggested at the recent hearing that she didn’t believe the businesses were completely immune from the allegations in the federal cases either.

“It’s not clear to me the entire thing is thrown out,” she said.

Rogers’ decision on whether or not to dismiss the lawsuits is expected soon.

Whatever the outcome, Consumnes River College professor Jason Newman hopes the state Legislature will also take action.

In recent years, lawmakers have introduced bills that would allow prosecutors in the state to sue social media companies for addicting children. Despite bipartisan support, the efforts have stalled in the face of strong opposition from the powerful companies.

Newman, a U.S. history teacher with more than 20 years at the community college, said he has seen his students have a tougher time breaking away from their phones and social media following the pandemic. It has affected their ability to stay focused during classes.

He hopes a future law can help remedy the problems he sees.

“The challenges that we know high school students face with social media,” he said, “continues into the college experience.”

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Stephen Hobbs is a political enterprise reporter for The Sacramento Bee. He has worked for newspapers in Colorado, Florida and South Carolina. Lawsuits in CA hold social media liable for addicting kids

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