It is still a matter of debate whether social media has done enough to tackle cyberbullying. The problem existed well before the emergence of social media – and may have included trolling on forums, message boards and even chat rooms. Cyberbullying has increased as people connect more, particularly younger Americans via social media.

One law firm now wants to tackle the issue head-on.

Matthew P. Bergman is the founder of Bergman Draper Oslund Udo in Pacific Northwest, a law firm that specialized on mesothelioma. This month, it announced that it had founded the Social Media Victims Law Center. The firm claims it is the only one in the nation that focuses exclusively on the representation of families of children who have been harmed by social media abuse. 

According to the center, it will use civil justice to pursue product liability claims against social media sites that offer unreasonably harmful products for vulnerable teens.

In an email, Mr. Bergman stated that the rising rates of suicides, depression, anxiety and eating disorders among teens is a direct result of social media platform failures. SMVLC, a civil court system, seeks to hold corporations accountable for harm to their children and create economic incentives that provide better products to their clients.

The reporter had the opportunity to discuss cyberbullying issues via email. Bergman explained the extent to which social media bullying can be worse than bullying in person, or via private messages.

Bergman said that “Social media bullying” is worse because of the addictive qualities of social media platforms. Psychologists and Doctors both agree that social media can be addictive, just like other addictions or gambling. Facebook admits that between 8 and 12 percent of their customers are “problem users”.

He said that while bullying is all harmful, social media’s addictive nature continues to attract victims towards the dangerous conduct. Potential victims may be able to walk around a bully in high school walking between classes. A victim may also be able to avoid a bully’s presence at any particular place if they are not there. Social media users, on the other hand, are so hooked to social media that even though they have been bullied they will continue using it.”

Bergman further noted the effects that social media bullying has on its victims – which has been well-documented in the academic and professional literature. 

Bergman stated that the CDC reported a 57 per cent increase in teenage suicides between 2008-2018. In the last ten years, rates of teenage suicide have more than doubled and are still rising. The rates of self-harming and eating disorders are increasing. Since 2008, teens have been using social media to increase their self-harm and eating disorders. Not only is there self-harm and depression, but social media bullying also leads to sexual exploitation. Adults pretending to be youth are sending inappropriate images or explicit behavior to vulnerable teens. These images and contents, unlike the terrible decisions made by previous generations as teens, never disappear and can be found all over the internet, leading to shame, embarrassment and, in some cases, self-harm.

SMVLC uses civil justice to pursue product liability claims made against social media platforms. The goal of the SMVLC is not to ban social media use or discourage young people from using the sites.

This effort has the sole purpose of making platforms more accountable for problems.

Bergman stated that moderate social media has positive effects for teens. However, platforms can be safer designed so the positive effects of these platforms aren’t outweighed by their dangers. But, because social media company’s profits depend on how many hours a user spends online, there is very little incentive for safety improvements that limit their screen time. This product liability principle forces all product makers (including social media platforms) into safety at the production cost to protect consumers from potentially dangerous products.

Bergman made a couple of suggestions during our interview on what changes he wants to see in the platforms.

This included age and identity verification to make sure users are truly who they claim to be. Warnings were also issued to their parents about the addictive nature and limitations on access to social media sites by minors. Protections for minors who exchange sexually explicit material. Algorithm changes to prevent teens from being directed to inappropriate content. Parents and children will be notified when abuse occurs.

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