Can You Sue Instagram for Your Child's Eating Disorder?

By Catherine Hodder, Esq. on July 30, 2022

Meta's Instagram, the attention-seeking social media platform, is getting unwanted attention in the form of lawsuits. Through an attorney at the Social Media Victims Law Center, two families are suing Instagram claiming the social media giant allegedly caused their daughters' eating disorders.

But how can you hold a social media platform liable for harm to its users? Most likely, the attorney is suing under product liability laws.

What Is Product Liability?

Product liability refers to the duty manufacturers and sellers have not to harm consumers with defective products. States have product liability laws, and plaintiffs can sue for negligence, strict liability, or breach of warranty.

What Are the Three Types of Defective Products?

There are three types of defective products in product liability claims. The manufacturer made the defect, marketed its product without proper warnings, or designed it with an inherent harmful defect.

Manufacturing Defects

These are simply defects or problems caused by faulty manufacturing. For example, if you bought a chair and the manufacturer used the wrong type of screws to assemble the chair, and the chair collapses when you sit down due to the improper screws, that is a manufacturing defect. If you suffer injuries from the chair collapsing, you have a personal injury claim against the manufacturer.

Marketing Defects

When a manufacturer designs and builds a product that could cause harm or injury, they should alert the consumer to the potential risks. Marketing defects arise when the manufacturer fails to advertise or label warnings of potential damage by using the product. There are three classifications of marketing defects.

Failure to Warn

A company is liable if its advertising is misleading and does not highlight dangers. Think of pharmaceutical advertisements for drugs. Most of them have lengthy disclaimers and warnings about side effects.

Inadequate Directions for Use

When a manufacturer fails to give proper directions, consumers may sue for subsequent foreseeable harm. For example, a company selling hair dryers understands their products, commonly used in bathrooms, could be dangerous. Water and electricity do not mix. Therefore, the company will label the hair dryer or include in the instructions that the consumer should not use the hair dryer in wet areas.

Misleading Advertisements

False or misleading statements about a product can open a company up to lawsuits. Snapchat settled Federal Trade Commission charges for misleading advertisements. Snapchat claimed that posted photos would disappear forever. Not only was that not true, but Snapchat misled its users about their privacy protections.

Design Defects

Design defects refer to products that companies purposefully design, but the design has inherent flaws when consumers use the product as designed.

When laundry detergent company Tide wanted to shake up its product line, it embraced the trend of "food imitating design." Tide developed single-use "pods" that resembled candy in color and design. It caused significant problems when children ingested the pods. Another social media platform added to the mistaken idea that the pods were edible. Many kids dared each other to bite into the colorful pods in a "Tide Pod Challenge."

Is Instagram Responsible for Design Defects?

Instagram, like all social media companies, uses algorithms for the sole purpose of driving certain content to specific users. According to the Social Media Victims Law Center, these companies "use complex algorithms and psychological manipulation to maximize screen time allowing damaging posts and hurtful communications to be fed to vulnerable kids."

So, teenagers with a negative body image may look for diets or posts about looking better. The algorithms process that information to deliver more posts to teenagers, which may reinforce body dissatisfaction and lead to eating disorders. Because Instagram's algorithms work as intended by their specific design, they are allegedly causing psychological harm to susceptible kids, which can lead to physical harm.

Is There an Alternative Design?

A plaintiff must show that there is a reasonable alternative design, meaning there was another "feasible, reasonable alternative design whose adoption could have reduced, or prevented, the plaintiff's harm."

Meaning: If Instagram could easily tweak its algorithms to prevent certain types of content from reaching vulnerable children, why don't they? Instagram may argue in its defense that the alternative design would not be effective or that the costs of the alternative design outweigh the benefits.

We will see if product liability laws can hold social media companies accountable. Lawmakers are taking note too. In President Joe Biden's 2022 State of the Union address, he called upon Congress to pass laws reigning in social media companies and prohibiting targeting online advertisement to children.

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