Experts believe lawsuits could have impact on how social media sites protect kids

Posted at 12:26 PM, Feb 17, 2022

Lawmakers introduced legislation Wednesday with bipartisan support that aims to better protect children on social media.

The Kids Online Safety Act would require tech companies to constantly monitor how algorithms, design and advertising may be harmful to children and take steps to protect kids from dangerous content.

Some families are already trying to hold these companies responsible for how social media has impacted their children.

"I believed all along that there's a shared responsibility between parents and the social media companies for keeping minors safe," said Aron Solomon, the chief legal analyst at Esquire Digital. "It obviously makes a big difference whether the child is 17 years old or 10 years old."

Lawsuits filed against Snapchat and Instagram allege two young girls developed addictions to the apps. The suits allege that as a result, an 11-year-old girl died by suicide, while a 14-year-old girl suffered from severe mental health issues and had to be hospitalized several times.

Soloman believes the lawsuits have some merit. The lawsuits call the social media services "unreasonably dangerous" and "defective."

"No lawsuit against (Snapchat parent company) Snap or (Instagram parent company) Meta or any other company that does social media is going to be successful without that kind of wording," he said.

He believes the terms of service and age restrictions on the platform will be a big part of the case but may not totally absolve the sites from responsibility.

The companies may argue the content is reasonably safe unless it ends up in the wrong hands. But it could come down to the apps' design and whether the sites were built to be addictive.

"That end might be a court saying, 'After looking at all of the evidence and hearing these tragic cases of these children who were addicted to your products, yeah, you're building addictive products and you've got to stop doing it," Soloman said. "You've got to change the design of your product, you have to change what your product does to people who use it."

Last year, Instagram paused the development of a version of its product meant for kids after congressional hearings and research that showed the app could be toxic for some of its youngest users. But experts say there's been little change in how social media sites operate and doubt there will be a settlement in the lawsuits.

If the lawsuits make their way through court and the companies lose, it could open the door to more legal action, including class action lawsuits.