Meta, the parent company of social media platforms Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp and Threads, faces federal lawsuits from 42 states’ attorneys general asserting that the company intentionally crafted features to make children and teens become addicted to their products. The states have also accused Meta of unlawfully collecting children’s personal data without parental permission. Meta has denied the claims, stating that the company works to make its social media platforms safer for youth.
Virginia Tech experts Mike Horning, a researcher who studies that way that social media algorithms impact individuals, and Donna Wertalik, an authority on internet privacy issues and social media effects on teens, offered their perspectives on what the lawsuits mean for social media companies and users.
A health crisis exists for children and families
“The global epidemic that drove everyone online resulted in the perfect storm of addiction, depression and pure terror for parents attempting to raise their children in a world that is like nothing they have seen before,” said Wertalik. “Social media platforms have become the forefront of life for our younger generations, whose addiction to those platforms have grown exponentially in the past decade.”
“I firmly believe it is not just the company, Meta, but rather everyone’s responsibility to take control of social media usage, enlist guidelines and parental controls and take back the power,” Wertalik said. “I believe education is needed. If the lawsuits result in money paid to the states, I would hope the outcome would be funding for programs. School systems need to receive funding to address social media awareness, empowering and educating children about online platforms and their impact at the earliest possible age.”
“The American Psychological Association has recommended, based on research, that parents recognize that children’s developing brains can be especially vulnerable to some social media features. Parents should both monitor and guide their children’s social media use and model reasonable social media interactions for their children,” Wertalik said.
Complex hurdles for the states’ lawsuits
“Social media companies like Meta have come under a lot of scrutiny for the ways they have used algorithms to impact the lives of adolescents. However, the research on this subject is still evolving,” Horning said. “For example, the American Psychological Association has stated that while parents should be thoughtful and cautious about how they deal with social media in the home, they also noted that the effects of social media on youth can be both beneficial and harmful depending on a wide number of factors.”
“Many studies have found that a person’s own unique personal and psychological make-up have the most influence on how they will respond to social media. In other words, not everyone is impacted the same,” Horning said. “Knowing this, it’s going to be challenging for the states to argue that social media has a universal influence on children or even that the impact is widespread. The research wouldn’t support those claims, and as a result, these lawsuits may not win.”
“A set of leaks from Meta seemed to indicate that they were aware of the role algorithms can play in influencing the mental health and well-being of young people. That doesn’t help the company’s case,” Horning said. “One thing is certain though — the lawsuits will cause all social media companies to take notice. Even if they are not successful in the courts, you may see social companies change policies and take a more cautious approach when designing algorithms for certain younger demographics.”
Donna Wertalik currently serves as director of marketing strategy and analytics and is a professor of practice in marketing in the Pamplin College of Business at Virginia Tech. She has diverse corporate and academic experience, training, and acquired skills in the identification of marketing opportunities, brand management, social media engagement and measurement as well as overall product development. Her role encompasses branding, marketing and metrics for the business school, as well as leading the strategic efforts of Pamplin’s Virtual Identity through Virginia Tech’s Social Media Organization, Prism. With France Bélanger, she co-hosts Voices of Privacy, which uses video episodes and other resources to raise general awareness of digital information privacy.
Mike Horning is an associate professor of multimedia journalism in the Virginia Tech School of Communications. His research examines how communication technologies impact social attitudes and behaviors, with a current focus on the impact of “fake news” and misinformation on our democratic processes. His expertise has been featured in The Hill, on Sinclair Broadcast Group, and in a number of other media outlets. Read more about him here.