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Lawsuit slams social media for forcing harmful content on teens

The lawsuit claims social media algorithms are pushing eating disorder content to its young users.
Posted at 4:22 PM, Jun 10, 2023

Eighteen-year-old Cecelia Neltner says social media pushed her into having an eating disorder.

Unhappy with her body, Neltner explained to Scripps News that she used social media to search for healthy recipes and exercise tips, but the algorithm snowballed her searches.

Algorithms like those on Instagram are crafted to suggest certain content to users based on their interests. But Neltner and her mother, Candace Wuest, claim they are dangerous and take things too far.

Neltner said it all began years ago when she started off searching things like "avocado cake pops," only to have social media subject her to things like "eat half a banana; the whole banana is too many calories for a meal."

"It started when I was about 12, I got a phone, I got on platforms and social media. It started off with healthy recipes and rabbit-holed into 'thinspo,'" Neltner told Scripps News.

She said social media made her hate herself.

That's why her mother said they are suing Facebook and Instagram's parent company, Meta.

"We're trying to hold them accountable because this has to stop. Soliciting children online for profit with toxic algorithms that are causing mental health issues has got to stop. We're losing our kids every day," said Wuest.

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Imran Ahmed is the founder and CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which looks at a number of ways social media can cause harm. He said he was inspired by testimony like Neltner's and her mother's. 

"We set up accounts in four different countries —the U.K., the U.S., Canada, and Australia — acting as 13-year-old girls on TikTok. And then we recorded what TikTok fed to those accounts, and it was genuinely horrifying," Ahmed said in an interview with Scripps News. 

He said within 2.6 minutes, those TikTok accounts set up for 13-year-olds were fed self-harm content, and within eight minutes, they were being directed to eating disorder content. His company's Deadly by Design study concluded that every 39 seconds, the accounts were fed something considered psychologically harmful. "As parents, we're doing the best that we can," said Wuest. "I had no idea this was going on." 

"The change, in my personal opinion, needs to happen in Washington, D.C.," she said. "We can monitor phones, and we can do everything we can as parents to try to avoid this happening to our children, but the kids will find a way." "I feel like legislation is honestly the only way that we can protect our kids at this time," Wuest continued. 

Wuest's lawsuit against Meta calls Instagram unreasonably dangerous, linking it to suicide attempts, anxiety, and long-term mental and physical harm that will forever impact her daughter. It calls out Meta for putting its profits ahead of human life.