Family sues Meta, blames Instagram for daughter’s eating disorder and self-harm

A preteen girl’s “addictive” use of Instagram led to an eating disorder, self-harm and suicidal thoughts over several years, according to a lawsuit against the platform’s parent company, Meta.

The lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on Monday evening, cites extensively from the Facebook Papers, a trove of internal Meta research documents leaked last fall that found the tech giant knew that Instagram was aggravating body image and other mental health issues among teenage girls in particular.

The case was filed on behalf of Alexis Spence, who was able to create her first Instagram account at the age of 11 without her parents’ knowledge and in violation of the platform’s minimum age requirement of 13. . The complaint alleges that Instagram’s artificial intelligence engine almost immediately sent the fifth-grader into an echo chamber of content glorifying anorexia and self-harm, and systematically fostered his addiction to alcohol. use of the app. The lawsuit was brought by the Social Media Victims Law Center, a Seattle-based group that advocates for families of teens injured online.

Now 19, the once ‘confident and happy’ Spence was hospitalized for depression, anxiety and anorexia and “fights every day to stay in recovery” because of the “harmful content and features that Instagram continually promotes and feeds to it in its efforts to increase engagement,” the lawsuit states.

It’s the first lawsuit of its kind to draw on the Facebook Papers while exposing the real human harm behind its findings, according to Spence’s attorneys. The lawsuit also contains previously unpublished documents about the leaks, including one in which Meta identified “tweens” as “herd animals” who “want to find communities where they can fit in.” Lawyers argue that these documents demonstrate Meta’s efforts to recruit underage users to its platforms.

“If you look at the extensive research that he [Meta] played, they knew exactly what they were doing to the kids and they kept doing it,” said Social Media Victims Law Center founder Matthew P. Bergman, who represents Spence and his family. “I would like to be able to say that the case of Alexis is absurd. It’s not. The only aberration is that she survived.

Bergman is also representing Tammy Rodriguez, a woman from Enfield, Connecticut, who filed a lawsuit in January against Meta and Snap, Snapchat’s parent company, over the companies’ alleged roles in the suicide of her 11-year-old daughter l ‘last summer.

Liza Crenshaw, a spokesperson for Instagram, declined to comment on the Spence lawsuit, citing it is an “active litigation”.

But in a Facebook post that Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted on October 5, 2021, following the early release of the Facebook Papers, he wrote, “I spent a lot of time thinking about types of experiences I want my kids and others to have online, and it’s very important to me that everything we build is safe and good for kids.

He also specifically referenced news reports that showed teenage boys suffered more from “anxiety, sadness and eating issues” and noted that “more teenage girls who said they struggled with this issue have also said that Instagram made those tough times better rather than worse.”

Katie Derkits, a spokeswoman for Snap, said in part in a statement, “While we cannot comment on specifics of ongoing litigation, nothing is more important to us than the well-being of our community.” She added, “We are working closely with many mental health organizations to provide integrated tools and resources to Snapchatters as part of our ongoing work to keep our community safe.”

The Spence family, left to right, Jeffrey, Ryan, Alexis, Kathleen and their dog Draco.Courtesy of the Spence family

At the height of her Instagram addiction, Spence said she had multiple accounts and would access them for hours in the middle of the night so as not to alert her parents, who had become concerned about her behavior as a increasingly hostile and unusual. She once punched a hole in the wall as they tried to take her device away, noted the suit, which attributed her conduct to Instagram’s “addictive design and product features.”

In an interview, Spence recalled how his algorithmically curated Instagram Explore page had been overflowing with “thinspo” or “thin-spiration” for years. photos of emaciated young girls and models, which she then kept to look at as “motivation” whenever she was hungry. Instagram also algorithmically recommended accounts for him to follow, many of which offered instructions for bulimic purging and extreme dieting, the suit said.

At 12, Spence drew a picture of herself crying on the floor next to her phone with the words “fat ugly stupid” on the screen and “kill yourself” in a thought bubble. At the age of 15, she was receiving emergency psychiatric treatment for his anorexia, purging and suicidal ideation, according to the lawsuit.

“It was really, really traumatic,” Spence said in an interview. “These are all images that are now ingrained in my head.”

The Facebook Papers, leaked by former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen, made public internal studies Meta had conducted over the previous three years. The meta-findings in the papers included that Instagram makes 1 in 3 teenage users feel worse about their bodies; the application is addictive by design; and it algorithmically leads vulnerable users to pro-eating disorder content.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., reported similar findings amid leaks when his office used a fake Instagram account to impersonate a teenage girl.

“Our research has shown, in real time, that Instagram’s recommendations will always latch onto a person’s insecurities, a young woman’s vulnerabilities about her body and lead them into dark places that glorify unrest. diet and self-harm,” Blumenthal said at the time. “That’s what Instagram does.”

Haugen argued that Instagram’s promotion of harmful content is part of what makes it so addictive.

“What’s super tragic is that Facebook’s own research indicates that when these young women start consuming this eating disorder content, they become more and more depressed, and it actually causes them to use the app more,” she said during a “60 Minutes” interview on CBS. in October 2021, days before addressing Congress to warn of the damage Instagram has allegedly done to the mental health of its young users.

Her testimony made Spence’s parents realize that Meta was leading their daughter to this content. The Spences, who are both teachers, said they had long struggled to understand what had happened to her. The teenager now lives with them on Long Island with her therapy dog, Draco, who alerts them to her self-harm and disordered eating behaviors, and makes sure she is never alone.

“We started losing her slowly, piece by piece,” Spence’s mother, Kathleen, said in an interview. “There was nothing we could have done because we were fighting a multi-billion dollar corporation and we have two different interests at heart, and their interest is not my daughter.”

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