scorecardFacebook and Snap sued by the family of teenager who says he became addicted to the apps and killed himself
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Facebook and Snap sued by the family of teenager who says he became addicted to the apps and killed himself

Kali Hays   

Facebook and Snap sued by the family of teenager who says he became addicted to the apps and killed himself
Tech3 min read
  • Christopher Dawley's family alleges in a suit Facebook and Snap are liable for his suicide at 17.
  • The family says he grew addicted to the platforms and they affected his mental health and body image.

The mother of a teenager who died by suicide says she believes Facebook and Snapchat are responsible.

In a federal lawsuit filed in Wisconsin on Monday, Donna Dawley accuses the social-media platforms of aiding in the deterioration of her son Christopher's mental health and alleges that eventually led to his suicide in 2015, when he was 17 years old.

Dawley is represented by the Social Media Victims Law Center, which says in the lawsuit that both platforms are and have been "aware of the addictive nature of their products and failed to protect minors in the name of more clicks and additional revenue."

The family also says their son, who began using Snapchat and the Meta-owned platforms Facebook and Instagram when he was 15, was too young to sign the apps' terms of use. US laws, such as the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, protect only minors under the age of 13.

The lawsuit came several months after a whistleblower, Frances Haugen, provided information to the press, and later to Congress, about internal studies at Facebook and Instagram that found the apps negatively affected the mental health of teenagers. In the wake of Haugen's disclosures, politicians in the US and the UK have proposed legislation directed at regulating social-media companies like Facebook.

Facebook has since changed its corporate name to Meta in a bid to create a version of what it calls the "metaverse," an ostensibly 3D interactive version of the internet and digital spaces. The company also said it would pause its development of a version of Instagram for children younger than 13.

Suicide is complex, and the reasons behind a suicide are not always clear. In the lawsuit, Dawley says her son developed a severe addiction to Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat in 2014 and would spend hours every day and through the night "absorbed" in his phone. She says he became "obsessed with his body image" and was frequently found on Instagram at 3 a.m. Dawley adds that her son "never showed outward signs of depression or mental injury." The suit says Christopher's sister discovered his body "still clutching his smartphone" after he killed himself in January 2015.

"Each of defendants' products contain unique product features which are intended to and do encourage addiction, and unlawful content and use of said products, to the detriment of defendants' minor users," Dawley writes in the complaint.

Snapchat, for example, creates rewards and trophies for users, prompting teens and young adults to use it "in excessive and dangerous ways," the lawsuit alleges. Likewise, the suit says Facebook and Instagram are designed around the rewards of likes and followers, adding that Instagram, specifically, is designed like a slot machine to be "maximally addicting."

"It creates an endless feed, designed to manipulate brain chemistry and prevent natural end points that would otherwise encourage users to move on to other activities," the lawsuit says.

A spokesperson for Snap said the company could not comment on active litigation. "Our hearts go out to any family who has lost a loved one to suicide," the spokesperson said.

"We intentionally built Snapchat differently than traditional social media platforms to be a place for people to connect with their real friends, and offer in-app mental health resources, including on suicide prevention for Snapchatters in need," the spokesperson added. "Nothing is more important than the safety and wellbeing of our community and we are constantly exploring additional ways we can support Snapchatters."

The lawsuit argues that all the apps are not simply social platforms but products that are subject to product-liability claims. Dawley is suing for strict product liability because of what she alleges are the apps' design defects, failures to warn, and negligence and deceptive trade practices. She is seeking unspecified damages.

A spokesperson for Meta did not respond to a request for comment.

Are you a Facebook, Twitter, or Snap employee with insight to share? Got a tip? Contact Kali Hays at or through secure messaging app Signal at 949-280-0267. Reach out using a nonwork device. Twitter DM at @hayskali.