PEORIA, Ill.–(BUSINESS WIRE)–The Social Media Victims Law Center (SMVLC), a legal resource for parents of children social media addiction and abuse, announced that she has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Damian Johnson, a single father living in Canton, Illinois, and his three children against YouTube, LLC, Facebook and Instagram of Meta Platforms, Inc. ., Snap, Inc. and TikTok, Inc. alleging that their algorithms deliberately fed dangerous content based on race and gender to its children.
The lawsuit alleges that Johnson’s youngest son, KLJ, nearly committed suicide when he attempted the “I killed myself” prank popularized on YouTube, resulting in lifelong disabilities and personality changes; while accusing Instagram and TikTok of using racial profiling algorithms that allegedly direct his eldest son, JAJ, to gun and gang-themed content, and his underage daughter, KAJ, of receiving countless messages from strangers offering her money in exchange for sex and asking her to send sexually explicit photos and videos of herself.
The lawsuit, which was filed in the Central District of Illinois (Case: 1:22-cv-01260-MMM-JEH#1), alleges that these social media products led her children to depression, substance abuse and other mental health disorders. Further, the manufacturers of the products have failed to take reasonable and practicable steps to prevent their products from identifying and deliberately disseminating violent, sexual and disturbing content to its children – and other minors – the defects of the products , according to Johnson, are known to these social media companies. .
This is the first time SMVLC has taken legal action against YouTube.
“Each of these social media companies has made billions of dollars by intentionally designing dangerous products that they know are harmful to minors,” said Matthew P. Bergman, founding lawyer of SMVLC. “Not only do they push their dangerous content towards minors, but their discriminatory racial profiling algorithm disproportionately directs violent and sexual content towards African Americans and other minority groups.”
Johnson’s youngest son, KLJ, nearly died replaying “I Killed Myself Prank” on YouTube. Without his father’s knowledge or consent, KLJ opened his first YouTube account at the age of 10 and was quickly hooked. When his father tried to restrict his access by taking away phones and tablets, he found other devices capable of playing YouTube videos, including the family television and even school devices.
While KLJ began to suffer from mental health issues due to his social media addiction, including sleep deprivation and anxiety, he suffered his worst damage when he tried YouTube’s “I Killed Myself Prank.” “I Killed Myself Prank” videos are those involving individuals (often children) pretending to commit suicide and filming as a family member finds them. Without the algorithmic discrimination contained in the YouTube product, KLJ would not have been targeted with such dangerous and disproportionately harmful content.
Thinking it would be funny to prank his twin sister and get a lot of likes, he tried to make it look like he hung himself in the closet. Shortly after, his sister entered his room and found KLJ hanging. She screamed for help, and while KLJ’s father was holding him up, his older brother JAJ shot him dead with a knife.
KLJ was rushed to Graham Hospital in Canton and then Life Flighted to OSF Saint Francis in Peoria, where he remained in a coma for three days. Although he was able to return home after 10 days in hospital, he suffered hypoxic brain injury and pinhole hemorrhage. His personality and ability to learn have changed, and although there is hope for a full recovery because he is still young, he may never be the same again. He went from being a helpful, good-natured kid to being moody, angry, and depressed.
When KAJ was under 10, she started her first Facebook account, which she did without her father’s knowledge or consent. Over time, KAJ opened multiple Facebook accounts to the point where she couldn’t remember usernames or passwords. She often opened an account, without anyone’s knowledge or consent, lost the password, and simply opened another to gain access to Facebook’s product and features.
KAJ eventually opened TikTok accounts, as well as several Snapchat and Instagram accounts, also without his father’s knowledge or consent. She started using all four social media products whenever she got the chance, and her addiction to these social media products got worse.
KAJ has received countless direct messages from strangers offering her money in exchange for sex and asking her to send sexually explicit photos and videos of herself. Without the algorithmic discrimination contained in the three social media products at issue, including the recommendation systems as well as the content promotion and display systems, KAJ would not have been targeted and overwhelmed with disproportionately violent, sexual and detrimental.
These products directed users to KAJ who were not her friends and who would exploit, bully or abuse her. She received messages from strangers offering her money for sexual content, and explicit photos of grown men she didn’t know.
Damian Johnson’s eldest son, JAJ, was a smart, confident kid who was always outgoing and made others laugh. He opened his first YouTube account at the age of 11 and gradually became addicted to YouTube’s social media product. He spent more and more time watching YouTube videos, the majority of which were videos selected and/or made by YouTube for him.
JAJ has no interest in guns or gangs, but Instagram and TikTok would often direct him to gun and gang themed content. The lawsuit alleges that Meta, YouTube and TikTok’s algorithms pushed violent and sexual content disproportionately towards African-American users, like JAJ. JAJ started getting into trouble at home and school and suffered mental damage as a result.
About the Social Media Victims Law Center
The Social Media Victims Law Center (SMVLC), www.socialmediavictims.org, was founded in 2021 to hold social media companies legally accountable for the harm they inflict on vulnerable users. SMVLC seeks to apply product liability principles to force social media companies to place consumer safety at the forefront of its economic analysis and to design safer platforms to protect users from foreseeable harm.
About Matthew P. Bergman
Matthew P. Bergman is an attorney, law professor, philanthropist, and community activist who has recovered over $1 billion on behalf of his clients. He is the founder of the Social Media Victims Rights Center and the law firm Bergman Draper Oslund Udo; professor at Lewis & Clark Law School; and serves on the boards of nonprofit institutions in the areas of higher education, national security, civil rights, worker protection, and the arts.