SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) – A recent lawsuit filed by 42 state attorneys general against Meta claims the platform intentionally lured young adults to sites like Instagram and Facebook and made them addicted to social media. 

The lawsuit comes after years of conversations about the harmful effects social media has on adolescent mental health, self-esteem and attention span. South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley signed the lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday, Oct. 24.

“Meta has harnessed powerful and unprecedented technologies to entice, engage, and ultimately ensnare youth and teens,” the lawsuit reads. “Its motive is profit and in seeking to maximize its financial gains, Meta has repeatedly misled the public about the substantial dangers of its social media platforms. It has concealed the ways in which these platforms exploit and manipulate its most vulnerable consumers: teenagers and children.”

KELOLAND News reached out to local adolescent mental health professionals to shed some light on how and why social media directly correlates with mental health issues in young adults. 

Dr. Wallace Jackmon, a psychologist at Avera Health who’s been studying the correlation between social media and mental health since 2017, says if a person is using seven or more applications (including text messages), their risk for mental health issues increases threefold.

“The research clearly indicates that there’s a direct correlation between how much time a person spends on social media and the risk of anxiety and depressive symptoms,” Jackmon said.

This problem is only extrapolated for teens and young adults. Travis Seiber, the counseling department chair at Washington High School, has been working with teens and children for over 20 years. He said teens gravitate to social media to feel accepted and their “fear of missing out.”

“What we know about teens is that identity and inclusion are so very important to this part of their development, so when that is brought to the platform of social media, people want to fit in; they want to create their own identity,” he said. 

Unfortunately, when young adults engage in social media platforms, they run the risk of becoming addicted to those apps. Jackmon said the highest risk group for addiction is people between ages 15-29. 

Before social media, people sought social connections by going outside and meeting face to face. Now, young adults primarily connect with others online, which Jackmon says creates a higher chance of teens getting addicted to the very sites they communicate through. 

“The cell phone has become such a catalyst for connection for teenagers… and that’s how teenagers and young people are maintaining contact,” Jackmon said. “Because that is their primary form of social contact with their peers that places them at a higher risk because some of those sites have an addictive component to them.”

But why is social media so addicting to young people? Jackmon cited the close proximity of mobile devices and endorphins that are activated when scrolling online. In the realm of addiction, people are more likely to continue using a substance (cell phones in this instance) if it continues making a person feel good, Jackmon said. 

“Sometimes it does work, it does provide a boost, it does cause a person to feel better and connected. So, it works for them and people don’t like to give up what works for them,” he said. 

Jackmon also said the constant closeness of people’s mobile devices makes it hard for them to give it up. Research indicates over 85% of teenagers have their smartphones under their pillows or within an arm’s length from their bed, Jackmon said.

“If it’s in your pocket, it’s going to be much easier to access,” he said. “With other substances, they have to go find it and purchase it, whereas the smartphone is right there in your pocket.”

So, what can parents and teens do to help? Both Jackmon and Seiber recommend setting limits on screen time and monitoring how often you pickup your phone. Jackmon said on average, people pick up their phones 8-12 times an hour and it can take up to three minutes to get refocused every time.

“It leads to low productivity,” he said. “Monitor how many times you’re picking your phone up in an hour. Keep it at an arm’s distance, don’t have it in close proximity. If you don’t need to be on the phone, stay off of it.” 

Jackmon also recommended parents seek information on social media addiction and mental health for teens from the American Psychological Association, National Institute of Mental Health or Avera Medical Group

Seiber equated young people’s introduction into social media to learning how to drive a car. He said teens should take the same precautions and responsibilities they would when driving when they’re scrolling online. 

“Be cautious of others, set reasonable boundaries, understand app limits,” he said. 

In regards to the Meta lawsuit, Seiber said he’s glad steps are being taken to add more regulations and protect young people from the harmful effects of social media. 

“Technology is going to be a part of our life and social media,” he said. “There’s a lot of good that can come from that, but with everything, regulations, reasonable expectations and setting boundaries are important things to remember if we’re going to let a teenager have access to apps and social media platforms.”