A preteen girl’s “addictive” use of Instagram resulted in an eating disorder, self-harm and thoughts of suicide over several years, according to a lawsuit against the platform’s parent company, Meta.
The lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California late Monday, heavily cites the Facebook Papers, a trove of internal Meta research documents leaked last fall that revealed that the tech giant knew Instagram was worsening body-image and other mental-health issues among teenage girls in particular.
The case was filed on behalf of Alexis Spence, who was able to create her first Instagram account at the age of 11 without her parents’ knowledge and in violation of the platform’s minimum age requirement of 13. The complaint alleges that Instagram’s artificial intelligence engine almost immediately steered the then-fifth grader into an echo chamber of content glorifying anorexia and self-cutting, and systematically fostered her addiction to using the app. The lawsuit was filed by the Social Media Victims Law Center, a Seattle-based group that advocates for families of teens harmed online.
Now 19, the formerly “confident and happy” Spence has been hospitalized for depression, anxiety and anorexia and “fights to stay in recovery every day” as a result of “the harmful content and features Instagram relentlessly promoted and provided to her in its effort to increase engagement,” the lawsuit states.
It is the first lawsuit of its kind to draw from the Facebook Papers while exposing the real human harm behind its findings, Spence’s attorneys say. The suit also features previously unpublicized documents from the leaks, including one in which Meta identified “tweens” as “herd animals” who “want to find communities where they can fit in.” The attorneys argue that such documents demonstrate Meta’s efforts to recruit underage users to its platforms.
“If you look at the extensive research that it [Meta] performed, they knew exactly what they were doing to kids, and they kept doing it,” said the founder of the Social Media Victims Law Center, Matthew P. Bergman, who is representing Spence and her family. “I wish I could say that Alexis’ case is aberrational. It’s not. The only aberration is that she survived.”
Bergman is also representing Tammy Rodriguez, an Enfield, Connecticut, woman who filed a lawsuit in January against Meta and Snap, the parent company of Snapchat, over the companies’ alleged roles in her 11-year-old daughter’s suicide last summer.
Liza Crenshaw, a spokesperson for Instagram, declined to comment on the Spence lawsuit, citing that it is “active litigation.”
But in a Facebook post that Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg published on Oct. 5, 2021, following the early release of the Facebook Papers, he wrote, “I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the kinds of experiences I want my kids and others to have online, and it’s very important to me that everything we build is safe and good for kids.”
He also specifically referred to reporting that showed teenagers suffered more from “anxiety, sadness and eating issues” and noted that “more teenage girls who said they struggled with that issue also said Instagram made those difficult times better rather than worse.”
Katie Derkits, a spokesperson for Snap, said in part in a statement, “While we can’t comment on the specifics of active litigation, nothing is more important to us than the well-being of our community.” She added, “We work closely with many mental health organizations to provide in-app tools and resources for Snapchatters as part of our ongoing work to keep our community safe.”
At the height of her addiction to Instagram, Spence said she had had multiple accounts and would access them for hours in the middle of the night so as not to alert her parents, who had grown concerned by her increasingly hostile and uncharacteristic behavior. One time, she punched a hole in the wall when they tried to take away her device, noted the suit, which attributed her conduct to Instagram’s “addictive design and product features.”
In an interview, Spence recalled how her algorithmically curated Instagram Explore page was brimming for years with “thinspo,” or “thin-spiration,” photos of emaciated young girls and models, which she would then save to look at for “motivation” whenever she was feeling hungry. Instagram also algorithmically recommended accounts for her to follow, including many offering instructions for bulimic purging and extreme dieting, the suit said.
At age 12, Spence drew a picture of herself crying on the floor next to her phone with the words “stupid ugly fat” on the screen and “kill yourself” in a thought bubble. By the time she was 15, she was receiving emergency psychiatric treatment for her anorexia, purging and suicidal ideation, according to the lawsuit.
“It was definitely really traumatizing,” Spence said in an interview. “It’s all images that are now ingrained into my head.”
The Facebook Papers, leaked by former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen, made public internal studies that Meta had conducted over the preceding three years. Meta conclusions contained in the documents included that Instagram makes 1 in 3 female teenage users feel worse about their bodies; the app is addictive by design; and it algorithmically drives vulnerable users toward pro-eating-disorder content.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., reported similar findings amid the leaks when his office used a fake Instagram account to pose as a teenage girl.
“Our research has shown, in real time, Instagram’s recommendations will still latch on to a person’s insecurities, a young woman’s vulnerabilities about their bodies and drag them into dark places that glorify eating disorders and self-harm,” Blumenthal said at the time. “That’s what Instagram does.”
Haugen has argued that Instagram’s promotion of harmful content is part of what makes it so addictive.
“What’s super tragic is Facebook’s own research says as these young women begin to consume this eating-disorder content they get more and more depressed, and it actually makes them use the app more,” she said during a “60 Minutes” interview on CBS in October 2021, days before addressing Congress to warn of the damage Instagram has allegedly wrought on the mental health of its younger users.
Her testimony made Spence’s parents realize that Meta was driving their daughter toward this content. The Spences, who are both teachers, said they had long struggled to understand what had happened to her. The teen now lives with them on Long Island along with her therapy dog, Draco, who alerts them to her self-harm and disordered eating behaviors, and ensures that she is never alone.
“We started losing her slowly, piece by piece by piece,” Spence’s mother, Kathleen, said in an interview. “There was nothing that we could have done because we were fighting a multibillion dollar corporation and we have two different interests at heart, and their interest is not my daughter.”