“It’s pretty similar to the opioid litigation“
– Jayne Conroy, Plaintiff Steering Committee (Feb. 1, 2023)
By Christina Grube, MTN Correspondent
(MASS TORT NEWS) Plaintiff leaders in MDL 3047 directly accuse social media giants of intentionally targeting children with addictive algorithms to increase profits in the recently released Master Complaint. The 287 page document (included below) claims that the widespread use of the addictive programs by children caused a “youth mental health crisis,” and perpetuates the sexual exploitation of children.
The complaint alleges mismanagement and damages from children using Facebook and Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and YouTube, and names parent companies Meta, Snap, ByteDance and Google as defendants. The JPML consolidated the case during a September 2022 meeting and transferred the case to the United State District Court for the District of California Northern under Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers.
Christopher Seeger (Seeger Weiss), Lexi Hazam (Lieff Cabraser), and Previn Warren (Motley Rice) received Co-Lead Plaintiff Counsel appointments in Nov. 2022, with Jennie Anderson (Andrus Anderson) as Plaintiffs’ Liaison Counsel.
Judge Gonzalez Rogers also assigned Emily Jeffcott (Morgan & Morgan), Joseph VanZandt (Beasley Allen), Jayne Conroy (Simmons Hanly Conroy), Andre Mura (Gibbs Law), Matthew Bergman (Potomac Law), Alexandra Walsh (Walsh Law), and Michael Weinkowitz (Levin Sedran) to Plaintiff’s Steering Committee Leadership.
Further Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee memberships includes, Ron Austin (Austin Law), James Bilsborrow (Weitz & Luxenberg), Paige Boldt (Watts Guerra), Carrie Goldberg (Goldberg Law), Sin-Ting Mary Liu (Aylstock Witkin), Emmie Paulos (Levin Papantonio), Roland Tellis (Baron & Budd), Diandra “Fu” Debrosse Zimmermann (Dicello Levitt), James Marsh (Marsh Law), Hillary Nappi (Hach Rose Schirripa), and Ruth Rizkalla (Carlson Law).
The complaint begins by stating that the defendants specifically targeted children as a core market because of their higher leisure time and lowered brain development. Platforms heavily use algorithms to personalize content presented to users in order to increase engagement time, which has in turn “allowed defendants to mint a fortune, by selling to others the ability to micro-target advertisements.”
The complaint also called attention to the defendants’ seeming violation of the 1999 Congressional Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which bars social platforms from collecting and using data of children under 13. Plaintiffs describe the platforms’ use of non-verifiable self-reporting user ages as “unenforceable and facially inadequate,” allowing droves of underage children to use their services. The complaint further notes that while defendants could identify and block underage users through their highly developed “age-estimation algorithms,” they seemingly chose not to for the sake of increased profits.
The document explains how defendants further manipulate children into more frequent social media use through in-app rewards and goals, which children remain particularly susceptible to because of their under-developed prefrontal cortex, which regulates decision making and impulse control. The continual spikes of dopamine, the brain’s “feel good” chemical, from seeing content one enjoys can lead to a higher tolerance, meaning children’s brain begin to struggle to naturally feel joy. Leaders point to this dulling of dopamine receptors through incessant social media use as the reason for the unprecedented spike in mental health issues among children today.
“[E]ach Defendant deliberately designed, engineered, and implemented dangerous features in their apps” the complaint reads, “that present social-reward and other stimuli in manner that has caused Plaintiffs and many scores of others to compulsively seek out those stimuli, develop negative symptoms when they were withdrawn, and exhibit reduced impulse control and emotional regulation.”
Plaintiff Steering Committee member Jayne Conroy described the nature of the MDL as “pretty similar to the opioid litigation,” and told MTN, “We’re seeing the same marketing techniques by social media companies to make sure people use them.”
“It’s not our position that these companies are bad about everything or that TikTok is bad or that Meta is bad,” Conroy clarified. “There is certainly a place for Facebook, there’s a place for TikTok, but what you dont want is to have a built-in machinery inside TikTok or Facebook that’s actively searching out vulnerable individuals and creating harm in order to increase their sales.”
The complaint further claims that Defendants’ products exacerbate the sexual exploitation of children by providing sexual predators with “access to a large pool of potential victims, many of whom are addicted to Defendants’ products.”
Conroy told MTN that Plaintiff leadership will likely seek both financial restitution for plaintiffs along with an injunctive relief or agreement that companies will “change the way their algorithms work.” Conroy also confirmed that “some discovery” has begun and estimated a schedule for further discovery by summer 2023.
Despite having only received consolidation in September 2022, Controy expects the MDL to move swiftly. “Judge Gonzalez Rogers is an extremely active and fast moving judge,” she said. “We were very lucky to draw her as the MDL judge….She doesn’t dilly-dally.”