Debate over harmful effects of social media and microplastic pollution spilling into U.S. courts
by David Loughran
Legislators and regulators are putting intense pressure on social media and plastics companies to change their business practices and that pressure is now building in U.S. courts as well. Plaintiffs accuse companies like Meta Platforms, Snap, and TikTok of targeting minors with addictive social media applications causing mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, fatigue, insomnia, eating disorders, and even suicide. Meanwhile, the scourge of microplastic pollution has brought consumer and environmental advocacy groups to court seeking to prevent companies like Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble from claiming single-use plastics can be recycled and compensation for the damage those products inflict once disposed.
When Meta Platforms’ CEO Mark Zuckerberg was asked during a congressional hearing in March 2021 about the connection between social media and the declining mental health of children, Zuckerberg responded: “I don’t think the research is conclusive on that.” He’s right on that point. Researchers continue to publish studies reporting a robust correlation between social media use and various mental health outcomes, but the study designs are not able to show convincingly that time spent on social media causes poor mental health. The correlation could be spurious, or the causation could even run in the opposite direction with poor mental health causing greater social media use.
Then came Frances Haugen, a product manager at Facebook, who in the summer of 2021 provided the U.S. Securities and Exchange Committee with a trove of internal documents revealing that the company was well aware of growing evidence linking its business practices with a range of social ills, not the least of which is an increase in mental health problems among teenagers. Those revelations along with congressional hearings in October were enough to trigger a series of shareholder lawsuits against Meta Platforms and then the first bodily injury lawsuits in January 2022 alleging the social media company was responsible for the suicide of a teenage girl (Rodriguez v. Meta Platforms, Inc. et al) and the ongoing mental health problems of another (Doffing v. Meta Platforms, Inc. et al). Dozens of similar cases have since been filed against Meta Platforms in federal courts across the country and plaintiff attorneys have requested that the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation consolidate those cases before a single court so that common questions of fact and law can be adjudicated in a fair and efficient manner.
While Meta Platforms is most commonly targeted in this emerging litigation event, the plaintiffs’ bar has its sights set on other big tech companies as well. Google and Apple have been sued for distributing addictive gambling apps while Snap and TikTok have been sued for bodily injuries allegedly caused by content available on their platforms.
Emerging litigation over microplastics is less sensational but has the potential to be every bit as consequential for companies whose products contribute to the millions of tons of plastic waste improperly disposed of each year. The science investigating the harmful effects of microplastic on the environment and human health has grown rapidly over the past several years and consensus is building that microplastic is perhaps second only to climate change in undermining the natural systems on which we depend.
While governments around the world are taking action to limit the production of single use plastic, environmental advocacy groups continue to make their case in U.S. courts as well. Environmental advocacy groups have filed a number of complaints against plastic resin and packaging companies (e.g., Formosa Plastics, Reynolds Consumer Products, Pretium Packaging) alleging their discharges of plastic waste are in violation of the federal Clean Water Act. These lawsuits seek injunctive remedies and the payment of civilian fines. Of even greater interest, though, may be consumer protection lawsuits alleging beverage companies like Keurig, Coca-Cola, and BlueTriton Brands illegally market their products as recyclable knowing that municipal programs cannot effectively recycle the staggering volume of plastic waste generated each day. The complaints argue these companies, despite their commitments to end plastic waste, are in fact doing little to mitigate the unfolding microplastic disaster.
Only one complaint to date has alleged specific property damage from microplastic pollution. The Earth Island Institute filed a lawsuit in California Superior Court in 2020 against Crystal Geyser, Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, Mondelez, Danone, Mars, Nestle, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and Clorox alleging the companies misled consumers about the dangers of their defective plastic packaging and that plastic packaging waste contaminated the private property of the Institute in Richmond, California and requires remediation. The case was removed to federal court, but plaintiffs have now successfully argued that the case should remain in state court, which legal observers believe improves the chance plaintiffs will prevail.
In all, some 61 individual corporate entities have been named to date in social media and microplastic litigation. Plaintiffs face an uphill battle convincing courts that social media apps are harmful and, even if they are, that companies that profit from those apps should be held liable. The science supporting plaintiffs’ case against companies contributing to microplastic pollution, on the other hand, is trending in plaintiffs’ favor. That microplastic is disrupting the natural world is indisputable; whether microplastic directly leads to human illness is more speculative, but we may be only a few well-designed studies and an insider leak away from a major bodily injury litigation event that could further challenge the sustainability of business as usual in the plastics industry.