Consumer Attorney Public Relations
Social Media Victims Law Center files three lawsuits against social media companies for causing eating disorders in teens
Dangerous content pushed, promoted, and glorified eating disorders
SEATTLE – JULY 29, 2022 – The Social Media Victims Law Center (SMVLC), a legal resource for parents of children harmed by social media addiction and abuse, announced that it has filed three lawsuits—two against Meta Platforms, Inc., and one against TikTok—for causing eating disorders and mental health issues in young girls.
The lawsuits allege that the Instagram and TikTok social media products caused eating disorders and personal injuries to three teenage girls: Alexandra “Alex” Martin, 19, of Georgetown, Ky.; “C.N.”, 17, from Independence, Ky., and “K.S.”, 13, of Va.
According to the lawsuits, the social media platforms’ dangerous and defective products led to the addiction, anxiety, depression and decline in the health of the three youths. The products selected and pushed harmful content to the minors, at least one of which signed up without her parents’ knowledge or consent and was under the age of 13.
“The algorithms on platforms like TikTok and Instagram direct vulnerable kids to unsolicited dangerous and harmful content, including videos and user groups encouraging eating disorders,” said Matthew P. Bergman, founding attorney of SMVLC. “These companies are aware of the harm it causes, particularly in young girls, with images and videos promoting unhealthy eating. We must hold them accountable for the harm they have caused, and to prevent further injuries and deaths resulting from use of its products by minors.”
To date, including these three cases, Social Media Victims Law Center has filed 16 lawsuits against social media companies for personal injuries and/or wrongful deaths. Of the 16 cases, seven have been wrongful death lawsuits.
Alexandra “Alex” Martin (Georgetown, Ky.)
Case 3:22-cv-04286 – United States District Court, Northern District of California, San Francisco Division
Alexandra “Alex” Martin was an outgoing and athletic child, who excelled at school and enjoyed sports and spending time with her friends, many of whom she had known since kindergarten. She wanted to work in the health care field when she grew up, so that she could make peoples’ lives better.
Alex got her first phone when she was 12 so she had a way to stay connected with her parents as she started riding the bus to school and downloaded Instagram. Alex’s parents believed Instagram to be safe for kids and a way to coordinate social events, stay in touch and post fun photos. They believed Alex would be safe if she stayed away from strangers.
Her father, Benjamin, is a police officer and sat Alex down to discuss the responsibilities of having a phone, and the potential dangers of using any product that allowed for interaction with strangers. He made sure she understood not to engage with people she did not know and to not send suggestive photos to anyone via her phone or social media. It was a conversation that they would have on multiple occasions. And in 2014 and 2015, everything seemed to be okay.
In 2015 or 2016, Alex opened a second secret Instagram account, also known as a “FINSTA,” short for “fake Instagram.” She had as many as three Instagram accounts at any given time, and occasionally opened new accounts when she forgot her password. Meta makes it easy for kids like Alex to open multiple accounts simply by providing a fake birthday and email with no verification. Internal Meta documents refer to teens opening multiple accounts as a “value add proposition.
In 2016, Meta’s algorithm directed Alex to massive amounts of eating disorder and other unhealthy content, including pro-anorexia content and social comparison product features. Alex’s Instagram usage continued to increase, and she would spend hours looking at the recommended pro-anorexia groups and content she would receive. Additionally, through her use of Instagram, Alex also received sexual communications and images from adult users and was solicited for sexually exploitive content and acts by adult users of Instagram.
The more Alex accessed and used Instagram, the worse her mental and physical health became, which eventually included a life-threatening eating disorder, multiple stays in the hospital and treatment facilities, as well as two suicide attempts.
A few months after her last stay at a treatment facility, Alex made the difficult decision to delete her Instagram account—not just the app, but the entire account—for good.
C.N. Wuest (Independence, Ky.)
Case 4:22-cv04283 – United States District Court, Northern District of California, San Francisco Division
C.N. was a vibrant and outgoing child, gifted in language and arts and dedicated to
school. She was often surrounded by friends and was known for bringing happiness and joy to those
around her. She was full of life and imagination and thought about becoming a teacher or artist when she grew up.
C.N. got her first cell phone when she was around 12 years old.
At first, C.N. used Instagram to communicate with her mother and find recipes. However, after a while, she stopped sharing recipes with her mom and became preoccupied with the idea that she needed to be slender. What her mother was unaware of at the time was that Meta’s inherently dangerous algorithms and recommendation system had escalated from directing C.N. to delicious recipes to healthy recipes and then to dangerous recipes. Some of these dangerous recipes, for example, were designed to achieve a negative caloric intake of 500 calories per day. Meta’s algorithms and recommendation systems also began directing to C.N. and connecting her with users, user groups, and content that provided her with tips and tricks on how to hide the fact that she was not eating.
It was on a shopping trip for new clothes in August of 2018 that Candace realized something was wrong with C.N. She began wearing baggy clothes to hide her weight loss and appeared pale and thin. A dinner after shopping threw C.N. into a panic because the menu did not list calories for the food.
Candace brought C.N. to the doctor the next day, who expressed no concern and only a five-pound weight loss in C.N. from her last visit. However, Candace knew something was wrong and brought her to Cincinnati Children’s Emergency Room, who immediately identified the C.N. was going into heart failure. She was admitted for anorexia nervosa within about an hour and transferred to Cincinnati Children’s Liberty Campus, where she was hospitalized for two and half weeks.
Since she left the hospital, C.N. has used art to express her feelings. She even created a skeleton character named “Ed,” an acronym for “eating disorder.” While her life plans are still being considered, C.N. hopes to do something that helps people in similar situations, perhaps as an art therapist.
Case 22STCV24332 – Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles
K.S. was an incredibly independent and well-adjusted child. She excelled in school and sports, participating in elite soccer, travel basketball, competitive swim, and gymnastics. She was outgoing and always happy to be around friends and family.
She received her first cell phone when she was 10 years old. She had previously gone to and returned from school with her older brother. But when he moved on to a new school, K.S. was given the phone to reach her family in case of an emergency. Rules were set for K.S. and the phone was only to be used for communication purposes only. She was told never to communicate with someone she did not know in real life, and to always provide her parents with the passcode to her phone.
Many of her friends had TikTok, and K.S. soon opened an account around 2020 without her parents’ knowledge or consent. She was 11 years old at the time, well under TikTok’s required age of 13.
K.S.’s use of TikTok began to escalate when she was out of school and in remote learning due to COVID. However, she returned to in-person learning in August of 2020, where she continued playing sports and made new friends. But at the same time, she started becoming more withdrawn and, over time, began exhibiting symptoms of depression and anxiety. K.S.’s TikTok use resulted in a slow but steady decline in her mental health. She gradually went from being someone who was social and gregarious, to someone who was quiet and withdrawn.
As K.S.’s time on TikTok increased, her mental and physical health declined. She started losing weight, eating very little, and becoming more withdrawn. She began having circulation issues, complaining that her feet would go numb while running and her hands and feet were always cold. K.S. would visit a pediatrician who discussed the importance of well-balanced nutrition for healthy development and scheduled a follow-up appointment. Her parents also put K.S. into mental health and nutrition counseling in their effort to fully identify and understand the scope of her health concerns and to provide support to K.S.
K.S.’s mother would periodically check the messages on K.S.’s phone for any clues as to what was happening to her daughter but found nothing of concern. But her parents became increasingly concerned and confused when her eating habits changed and K.S. continued to lose weight.
In December 2021, K.S.’s grandfather read an expose in the Wall Street Journal about TikTok and how it sends kids down a dangerous rabbit hole, including eating disorders. After learning about the story, K.S.’s mother immediately checked her phone, specifically looking for the TikTok application and its content. What she found was disturbing content being curated and pushed to her daughter, including eating disorder tutorials, encouragement and how-to videos. Among the images her mother saw were ones with the hashtag “WhatIEatInADay, with young girls dancing and holding smoothies, and saying that it was important to eat “500 and under.” These were videos and images sent to a 12-year-old girl without any prompt or request.
Her mother deleted the TikTok app from K.S.’s phone, only to have it reappear and be deleted again.
After a visit to her pediatrician in January of 2022, K.S. was found to have a dangerously low heart rate and was admitted to the hospital on January 24, 2022, where she stayed for 16 days for re-feeding and weight restoration.
On February 14, 2022, K.S.’s mother checked her phone only to find TikTok back on it. She took some photos of the images being sent to her minor child by TikTok without searching or entering anything into the application, which included images promoting eating disorders.
Since her discharge from the hospital, K.S. has reached a healthy weight as determined by her medical team, but her post-hospitalization treatment requires a day-to-day push by her parents to help K.S. to get and stay healthy, and continued counseling and treatment.
About the Social Media Victims Law Center
The Social Media Victims Law Center (SMVLC), socialmediavictims.org, was founded in 2021 to hold social media companies legally accountable for the harm they inflict on vulnerable users. SMVLC seeks to apply principles of product liability to force social media companies to elevate consumer safety to the forefront of its economic analysis and design safer platforms to protect users from foreseeable harm.
About Matthew P. Bergman
Matthew P. Bergman is an attorney, law professor, philanthropist and community activist who has recovered over $1 billion on behalf of his clients. He is the founder of the Social Media Victims Law Center and Bergman Draper Oslund Udo law firm; a professor at Lewis & Clark Law School; and serves on the board of directors of nonprofit institutions in higher education, national security, civil rights, worker protection and the arts.
If your child or young family member has suffered from serious depression, chronic eating disorder, hospitalization, sexual exploitation, self-harm, or suicide as a result of their social media use, speak to us today for a no-cost legal consultation.