Addiction and Other Harm Caused by Social Media’s Defective Designs

Addiction and Other Harm Caused by Social Medias Defective Designs

In the early days of widespread access to the Internet, it was common to hear the technology described as being like an information superhighway. Compared to the digital landscape we find ourselves in today – high-speed Internet, ubiquitous WiFi, and seemingly endless Internet-based smartphone apps for every conceivable purpose – the Internet of that time looks more like an “information backwoods country road.”

But one thing was certain, even very early on. Young people who grew up in the Internet age would, for better or worse, have a vastly different kind of childhood than any previous generation. And, while this technology has helped young people connect with each other and the global community in ways never imagined before, it has also exposed them to damaging influences that can have a profoundly negative impact on their impressionable, developing brains.

In this blog post, I explore a particular corner of this brave new world - social media. Drawing on research into how social media can become a dangerously addictive pastime for youth, I examine how some social media companies are keenly aware of the addictive potential of their apps for this segment of users. I explain why they have discussed building products that specifically target this audience. And how these products’ own design (algorithms employed to direct curated content to individual users) can be harmful to at-risk young people.

What Is Social Media?

Social media are digital tools that allow people to interact in virtual communities and networks. These tools permit users to create, share and/or exchange information and ideas.

Novel social media formats emerge frequently, but each platform usually has one or more of the following purposes:

  • Social Networking (examples: Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram stories)
  • Photo/Video Hosting/Sharing (examples: Instagram, Facebook Live, Youtube)
  • Interactive Media (examples: Snapchat, TikTok)
  • Blogging/Community Forums (examples: Reddit, Medium)
  • Social Reviewing (example: Yelp, Foursquare)
  • Sharing Economy (examples: AirBNB, Uber)

Successful platforms will develop their own distinct community of users and appeal to different demographics. For example, Pinterest is a visual discovery engine and bookmarking tool that allows users to find and save ideas or inspiration for home, style and wellness projects. Marketing materials reveal its audience is 77.1 percent women, 13.5 percent men, and 9.4 percent of an “unspecified” gender.

In Canada, people between the ages of 24-35 form the largest age cohort on social media and women comprise 53 percent of social media users.

How Popular Is Social Media?

While it’s safe to say social media is very popular among Canadians, determining the exact number of active users or audience of these platforms is tricky. Companies behind these platforms are able to identify the number of user accounts logging into their systems within the country, but some users may have created multiple accounts, while other users logging in may be travelling.

Research by Hootsuite/Kepios that relied on social media companies’ ad reach marketing reports found the number of social media users in Canada in January, 2022, equalled 87.1 percent of the population. This represented growth of 3.4 percent year over year. The active users/audience reach of some of the most popular social media platforms during this period were:

  • Youtube (33.30 million users, equivalent to 87.1 percent of Canadians)
  • Facebook (20.90 million users, equivalent to 54.7 percent of the total population or 63.2 percent of the “eligible” population aged 13 years or older)
  • TikTok (11.19 million users aged 18 or older, and its advertisements reached 36.1 percent of all adults aged 18 or older. The company permits advertisers to market their materials to users aged 13 or older, but limits audience data to users aged 18 or older)
  • Instagram (7.40 million users, equivalent to 45.5 percent of the total population or 52.6 percent of the “eligible” population aged 13 years or older)

Is Social Media Harmful?

For all its benefits – bringing dispersed communities of interest together, acting as a virtual town square, providing an audience for talented content creators – there is a definite downside to social media.

Almost one in five Canadians report losing sleep due to social media use, and 22 percent say they are less physically active because of time spent on these platforms. Moreover, 18 percent of Canadian social media users have found that using these platforms makes it more difficult to concentrate on other tasks. About one in seven users also report having negative emotional experiences from social media use, including anxiety, depression, frustration, anger or jealousy over other people’s lives.

Young people disproportionately experience the detrimental effects of social media use. Among Canadians between the ages of 15-19, almost half (47 percent) report sleep loss. Similarly, 24-36 percent of users between the ages of 15-29 say they have difficulty concentrating on tasks due to social media, and about one in five people in this cohort experienced depression or anxiety using social media. An extensive global review of pediatric research into social media found “the most frequent problems found are related to mental health: depression, anxiety, and addiction”.

Researchers have also learned that “gender and age seem to be highly associated with the ways people use social media negatively. Particularly among girls, social media use is consistently associated with mental health issues, an association more common among older girls than younger girls.”

Can Social Media Use Be Addictive?

As if the higher rate of harmful effects of social media use were not bad enough, younger people are also more vulnerable to its addictive qualities. Independent research has revealed that social media use can prompt compulsive behaviours and observable neurological responses in the brain that are also indicative of addiction.

While Canadians spend on average just over two hours per day on social media, studies of students in grades 7 to 12 found between one in six and one in three of them spend five or more hours on social media. The Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey Report, conducted by Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), also determined that 86 percent of students in grades 7 to 12 visited social media platforms daily in 2015.

Frequency of use and time spent on social media can be warning signs that a user may have an unhealthy relationship with social media or even be addicted to this activity.

Researchers have shown that certain activities associated with social media use can activate the brain’s reward centre (the nucleus accumbens) and trigger the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes a person feel pleasure. For some people, repeated and prolonged activation of this part of the brain can lead to addiction. Other studies have shown frequent social media use can also trigger activity in the amygdala - a part of the brain associated with impulsive behaviour.

Because adolescent and teenage brains are experiencing rapid growth and social skill development, they are “particularly susceptible to the addictiveness of social media.”

“The overuse of social media can actually rewire a young child or teen’s brain to constantly seek out immediate gratification, leading to obsessive, compulsive and addictive behaviours,” explains Nancy DeAngelis, Director of Behavioural Health for an American hospital network. “This is what can make mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, ADHD and body dysmorphia worse.” She says using social media from a very young age amplifies the danger of developing these types of disorder or future addictive behaviours.

Young people are acutely aware of social media’s addictive qualities. A survey by Common Sense Media found half of teenagers felt they were addicted to their mobile devices (the primary way young people access social media) and three out of four teens surveyed felt “compelled to immediately respond to texts, social media posts and other notifications.”

The Great Debate: Addictive or Just Problematic?

Meta, the company that owns Facebook and Instagram, has called the negative effects of using social media product and services “problematic use,” but stresses that “problematic use does not equal addiction.” Responding to a Wall Street Journal report on leaked internal documents showing Meta knew of these ill effects, Facebook research chief Pratiti Raychoudhury suggested that “problematic use has been used to describe people’s relationship with lots of technologies, like TVs and smartphones.”

Within psychiatry, there is ongoing debate about whether excessive social media use should be considered an addiction in the same way as illicit substances or gambling. To date, the American Psychiatric Association’s well-regarded Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has not classified Internet addiction or social media addiction as psychiatric disorders in the same way substance use disorders or gambling disorders are listed.

But this absence does not mean such conditions do not exist; rather, it means the novelty of social media and continuing disagreement over comprehensive diagnostic criteria for such a disorder have not yet resulted in general consensus within the field.

In the 2013 edition of the DSM, for example, Internet gaming disorder was listed as “an addictive disorder warranting additional clinical research and experience.” If research continues to demonstrate that certain problematic social media use and corresponding negative symptoms can be used as diagnostic criteria for a separate disorder, future editions may treat social media disorder in a similar way.

Have You or A Loved One Been Affected by Social Media’s Harmful Effects?

In a series of reports based on a whistleblower’s leaked documents, the Wall Street Journal noted that “Facebook Inc. (now known as Meta) knows, in acute detail, that its platforms are riddled with flaws that cause harm, often in ways only the company fully understands.”

Internal documents reveal that social media features the company has identified as being most harmful and addictive (for example, the curated Explore page on Instagram) were also essential components of its design. Shockingly, some of these documents showed Instagram use by teenage girls made thoughts of “suicide and self injury” worse for 13.5 percent, made "eating issues” such as anorexia and bulimia worse for 17 percent, and made “body image issues” worse for one in three.

Despite being well aware of the negative impact of social media products on some users, and particularly young users, Meta was planning to build products for people under the age of 13 - perhaps even as young as six years old.

When social media companies create potentially harmful social media products without adequate age controls, fail to warn users (and especially parents and guardians of negative effects of use), or intentionally incorporate methods designed to create addiction to a product, they exhibit unconscionable negligence.

If you or a loved one has suffered significant harm from problematic social media use, I want to hear from you. Gluckstein Personal Injury Lawyers is exploring legal options to ensure companies such as Meta learn that irresponsibly targeting defective social products at vulnerable and impressionable users will come at a cost to their reputation and bottom line.

To learn more about how Gluckstein Personal Injury Lawyers can help you, please reach out to me at or visit us at


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