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Mental health workers hope Meta lawsuit leads to new social media guidelines

Indiana joins lawsuit against Facebook parent company

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — A counselor who works with children and teens said Wednesday that a new lawsuit against Facebook’s parent company shows the need for tougher age restrictions for social media.

Indiana on Tuesday joined 40 other states and the District of Columbia in suing Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, over what the suit claims are advertising practices that specifically target children and young teens, despite the company’s insistence the sites are only for people ages 13 and up. The lawsuit would force Meta to pay civil penalties and adhere strictly to consumer protection laws.

Jennifer Vincent, a licensed mental health counselor with more than a decade of experience working with children and teens, said social media’s role in her patients’ problems exploded during the lockdowns ordered in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She said teens spent far more hours online than they otherwise would have, which meant more time on social media. Vincent said research has shown interactions on social media lead to spikes in levels of serotonin and dopamine in the brain, which can be especially habit-forming for teens.

“Especially for an adolescent, who doesn’t have the mental development to handle that, it’s just increasing, increasing, increasing, and they don’t really have the time to understand what information they’re taking,” she said.

IUPUI law professor Jennifer Drobac, who specializes in juvenile law, said minors enjoy special protections in consumer law because they are considered legally unable to provide consent, such as for the use use of their private data. Among other things, juveniles are able to void contracts in ways adults cannot. She said this might give the states some leverage in court.

“That gives parents an opportunity to inspect what their teens have been doing, it gives the teenagers a chance to have a redo, if you will, and learn from their mistakes,” she said.

Drobac and Vincent both said the Meta lawsuit has some parallels with the lawsuits filed against tobacco companies in the 1990s. Both involve accusations of intentional targeting of children through advertising, though Drobac added social media use doesn’t carry anything approaching the health risks tobacco use does.

Vincent said she hopes the lawsuit leads to stricter age rules for users of social media, particularly Instagram. She said the teenage years are a particularly sensitive time because people are learning the social cues that will serve them as adults. Vincent said she would like to see a requirement similar to CashApp, which requires users under 18 to have an adult sponsor, verified by photo ID.

In the meantime, Vincent said parents should regularly talk to their children about how they use social media and what they see when they use it. She also recommends strict time limits. She said she does not allow her own children to spend more than 30 minutes a day on social media.