Case against social media giants over addiction, eating disorders and other alleged effects they cause in children moves forward

Attorneys representing the companies file a demurrer to dispute the allegations based on First Amendment, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act


The social media giants who are being sued for the alleged addiction and mental health issues they cause in children have filed a demurrer in Superior Court to challenge the legal basis of a long list of lawsuits against them.

(File photo)

The plaintiffs in the case, who have filed more than 40 complaints, are represented by a steering committee that was assembled as part of a coordination process in the state court system. Similar cases can be bundled into one series of proceedings under a single trial judge, avoiding the potential for contradicting rulings if each case proceeded individually with its own judge.

The plaintiffs filed a response to the demurrer earlier this month, laying out the reasons why TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and parent companies included as defendants in the litigation should be held accountable. Attorneys for the social media companies have a Sept. 1 deadline to file a reply brief with the court.

Frederick Schenk, an attorney from Carmel Valley who is on the steering committee, said in an interview in June that the case is still in the early stages.

“There will be motions from the defense opposing the complaints that have been filed,” he said. “But eventually, when we get past this, we will be involved in some very heavy duty discovery, that is doing our homework against the companies that have been sued in this litigation.”

One complaint describes allegations by the family of a 13-year-old girl who got a cell phone at age 9 and began opening TikTok like it was “muscle memory” by 15.

Another case describes a 12-year-old defendant who started using TikTok at 12 to connect with friends and share “cute dance videos with one another.” The app’s For You Page, which recommends videos based on previous videos users have viewed, allegedly started showing her “extreme and harmful eating disorder content and how to videos, without her mother’s knowledge or consent.” She also began restricting her eating to about 300 calories per day, the complaint alleges.

Several other cases allege the social media platforms caused social media compulsion, self-harm, suicidal ideation, depression, eating disorder, severe anxiety, body dysmorphia and reduced sleep in their teen users.

One of the key issues in the demurrer filed by the social media companies is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a 1996 law that says a website can’t be held liable for third-party content — such as content users post on their social media accounts.

Attorneys for the social media companies argue that due to Section 230 and the First Amendment, they cannot be held liable for alleged mental health conditions or other side effects that users experience.

“Courts have long recognized that the First Amendment prevents efforts to hold liable those who distribute movies, television shows, music, and video games for their role in transmitting speech that allegedly harms or ‘addicts’ its audience — including minors,” they wrote in their demurrer.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs, including Schenk, responded that TikTok, Facebook and the other platforms named as defendants “offer an absolutist vision of Section 230” that ignores an important distinction: The allegations from the plaintiffs accuse the social media companies of configuring their platforms to be addictive even though they knew of the adverse effects on the youngest users.

The attorneys for the plaintiffs also cite data showing recent increases in teen suicides, which they allege are caused by the proliferation of social media usage.

The plaintiffs also allege that the social media platforms don’t make much of an effort to enforce their minimum age requirements, making it easy for children to lie about their age to create social media accounts.

“Defendants purposely designed their defective social media products to target and addict young users, and intentionally concealed the design defects after learning that their products were causing serious harm like depression, eating disorders, and suicide,” attorneys for the plaintiffs wrote.