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By Kristin Thorne

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YAPHANK, Long Island (WABC) – A Long Island family is suing Meta for “harming” their teenage daughter using Instagram.

Alexis Spence, now 20, from Yaphank, started using Instagram on her phone when she was 11.

Spence said she created an account so she could play with Webkinz. Webkinz are stuffed animals that have online counterparts in games.

“It was cute and innocent,” Spence told Eyewitness News investigative reporter Kristin Thorne.

Spence said she started clicking fitness photos and photos of models. She said Instagram started, “showing me pictures of young people struggling with eating disorders and their bodies.”

She said Instagram suggested she follow users like “skin_and_bones” and “apple core anorexic.”

Spence said she can join focus groups where people have to log their calories, weigh themselves daily and take pictures of their weight on a scale.

“If you went there, everyone in the group would bully you,” she said. “It was horrible.”

Spence said some of the discussions took place on the Instagram platform or in separate apps recommended by Instagram users.

Spence said she did what many young people do – create a separate Instagram account using a generic email address, so she could keep track of posts and photos she didn’t want her friends to have. parents see. She even hid the Instagram app inside the iPhone’s calculator app.

“My mental health was really, really struggling,” Spence said.

Spence’s parents said they put all the parental controls and protections on Alexis’ phone, but Alexis found a way around them. When they hid the phone from her, she would wait until they were asleep and she would find it.

“As much as I would do my research on how to protect her, she was 10 steps ahead of me on how to escape,” said Kathleen Spence, Spence’s mother. “We did everything we should have done as parents, but we were fighting a computer algorithm. We were outnumbered, we were overpowered.

At 15, Spence said she had several eating disorders and suffered from mental health issues.

“My parents were like, we pick up the phone, you have to go to the hospital,” Spence recalled.

Spence spent about two weeks in a psychiatric ward.

“After 14 days without a device, when I was allowed to see my daughter for the first time, she was a completely different person,” said Jeffrey Spence, Spence’s father.

Spence’s parents said they were still suspicious whether Spence’s struggles stemmed from his use of social media. But, they said, when Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen came forward in 2021 with evidence that Facebook knew Instagram was toxic to teenage girls, they put two and two together.

“Social media is the silent killer of our children’s generation,” said Kathleen Spence.

The Spences are now among more than 1,000 families across the United States and Canada who are suing the social media giants for causing harm to their loved ones.

The families are represented by the Seattle-based Social Media Victims Law Center.

“Parents say enough is enough,” said Matthew Bergman, founder of the legal center. “These products must be held accountable.”

Bergman said he knows the prosecutions face an uphill battle.

“Currently, these social media platforms operate in this ether where they have none of the responsibilities of any other responsible business in America,” he said. “All we’re saying is that social media companies should operate by the same rules.”

Last week, the Seattle Public School District announced it was taking legal action against social media giants, including Meta, for “creating a mental health crisis among young people.”

“Until these companies have to bear the financial consequences of designing their dangerous products, they are unlikely to want to change their behavior,” Bergman said. “Currently the costs of these dangerous products, as you saw in the case of Alexis, are not borne by the platform – they are borne by Alexis’ parents, the insurance companies, the clergy, teachers, everyone other than the platform.”

Antigone Davis, global safety officer at Meta, told Eyewitness News that Meta has removed almost all Instagram hashtags and users that promote self-harm, suicide or eating disorders.

“We don’t allow content that encourages suicide, self-harm, or eating disorders, and of the content we remove or take action on, we identify more than 99% of it before it gets to us. We will continue to work closely with experts, policy makers and parents on these important issues,” he said.

Meta said it has developed various tools to help teens stay safe on Instagram, including age verification performed by uploading a video selfie, prompting teens to look at a different topic if they scrolled down a topic. too long and letting parents see how long their child has been on Instagram and who they follow.

The company also said that when someone under 18 signs up for Instagram, the platform defaults to the most restrictive settings.

Meta has provided instructional videos below to Eyewitness News to help parents and teens stay safe on Instagram:

Spence said she no longer uses Instagram and sets time limits on other social media platforms.

Because she suffers from anxiety, Spence has a therapy dog ​​to assist her. He is trained to interrupt behaviors such as when Spence taps his arm or leg.

“I’m not allowed to go into the bathroom alone, so if I go he scratches the door and barks,” she said.

Spence said she hopes to speak to Congress about the dangers of social media.

“When will our politicians stand up?” asked Kathleen Spence.

On Thursday, Instagram announced new features to help people — especially teens — manage their late-night usage on the platform. Users can put their accounts in “silent mode”. When enabled, silent mode turns off notifications and lets people know you’re unavailable. While all users will be able to enable silent mode, teens will be proactively prompted to enable silent mode when spending time on Instagram at night.

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