A Northern California family is alleging that their preteen daughter’s “addictive” use of Instagram caused her to suffer from an eating disorder, self-harm, and thoughts of suicide over several years, according to a lawsuit against the platform’s parent company, Meta.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, heavily cites the Facebook Papers, a massive set of internal documents leaked last fall by whistleblower Frances Haugen detailing—among other things—the company’s knowledge of the ways in which Instagram can severely exacerbate body image issues among preteens, NBC News reports.
The complaint was filed on behalf of Alexis Spence, who is now 19. It states that she was able to create her first Instagram account at age 11 without her parents’ consent, and in violation of the social platform’s minimum age requirement of 13. The suit, which was filed by the Social Media Victims Law Center, claims that Instagram’s artificial intelligence engine almost immediately began pushing content that glorified anorexia and self-cutting to the preteen’s feed.
“Meta has consistently and knowingly placed its own profit over the health and welfare of its teen and underage users,” Matthew P. Bergman, founding attorney of SMVLC, said in a statement. “These documents, including some that have not been previously disclosed to the public, show that Meta’s senior leadership knew that Instagram harms kids but consciously and callously chose profits over human life.”
The suit claims that Alexis used to be a “confident and happy child,” who loved reading and wanted to become a veterinarian. But she eventually had to be hospitalized for depression, anxiety, and anorexia. It also states that she “fights to stay in recovery every day” as a result of “the harmful content and features Instagram relentlessly promoted and provided to her in its effort to increase engagement.”
Before Spence was 13, she managed to hide her social media use from her parents by disguising Instagram’s icon as a calculator and using multiple devices to access the app, according to the complaint.
“She learned how to deceive her own family,” Spence’s mother, Kathleen, told NewsNation. “Instagram infiltrated our home and destroyed our family structure […] We started losing our daughter.”
According to NBC, this is the first lawsuit of its kind to draw information from the Facebook Papers while exposing the real human harm behind its finding, the Spence family’s attorney said. The suit also highlights previously unpublicized documents from the leaks, including one in which Meta identified “tweens” as “herd animals” who “want to find communities where they can fit in.”
“If you look at the extensive research that [Meta] performed, they knew exactly what they were doing to kids, and they kept doing it,” Bergman told NBC.
“I wish I could say that Alexis’ case is aberrational. It’s not. The only aberration is that she survived.”
Bergman is also representing Tammy Rodriguez, the mother of an 11-year-old Connecticut girl who committed suicide last summer.
Alexis, who now has a therapy dog, told NewsNation, “They have the means to stop it, but that would ruin their engagement and in turn lower their profit and they don’t want to hurt their money.”
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