Protecting youth from corporate giants that prioritize profits over the health and safety of children is personal to Jessica Carroll. The Captain’s Island resident earned her law degree from the Charleston School of Law in 2022 and began working on litigation that alleges social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok harm the wellbeing of children and teens.
“When you have children, that is your ultimate legacy,” said Carroll, who has two young daughters. “They’re my number one priority and I always said if I’m going to spend time away, it was going to be to make the world a better place for them.”
Growing research shows the more time adolescents spend on social media, the more likely they are to develop mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. Experts say these platforms expose kids to online predators, cyberbullying, body image issues, and an unhealthy “comparison culture.”
“The algorithms these companies have built are highly personalized and exploit insecurities in young people specifically,” explained Carroll, an attorney with Motley Rice in Mount Pleasant. The law firm has filed numerous cases in a national multidistrict litigation suit that alleges TikTok, Snapchat, Facebook and other social media sites are designed to hook young users at the cost of their physical and mental health.
“Around age 11 and 12 is when you start going outside your immediate family looking for external validation,” said Carroll. “Before social media, that was relegated to your peers and your classroom; now it’s comparing yourself to a manufactured reality of what society has deemed to be the ideal boy or girl.”
In 2021, former Facebook manager turned whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed thousands of company documents that showed the extent of which Facebook and Instagram parent company, Meta Platforms, knew about the harm its products caused children.
“What makes it so disturbing is that these companies specifically targeted people under 13 and they designed their products to addict children to these sites,” said Carroll, who thinks social media companies have not done enough to keep kids safe in the largely unregulated industry.
A Lowcountry native, Carroll was born at the old Charleston Naval Hospital and graduated from the College of Charleston in 2007. She worked in technology for several years before pursuing a law degree. “I wanted to do something that I’m passionate about and that benefits children in the long run,” she said of her new career.
“When we (Motley Rice) take on a cause, we attack it not only from the litigation front, but we work on the legislation front,” Carroll said. “We have bipartisan support for legislation that better protects young people online and we’re working with senators to get better laws in place to hold these companies accountable.”
Child advocates and lawmakers are calling for more parental controls that include time limits and parental consent for minors to open a social media account, along with safeguards to protect kids from inappropriate content and advertising.
“We want them to change their design features that are inherently addictive like intermittent variable rewards that work the same as slot machines at casinos,” said Carroll. “Adults and kids underestimate the time spent on social media platforms and lose all concept of time
when they’re scrolling through.”
Carroll advises parents and guardians to read up on the hazards of social media and to have open conversations with their children about appropriate screen time. She follows a Facebook group called Parenting in a Tech World where other parents discuss their personal struggles and share warning signs to watch out for.
“These little dangers for kids are lurking everywhere,” said Carroll, who suggests parents not allow their children access to apps or games they have not joined and fully explored themselves. “If it’s a free app, they’re taking your data and advertising things to your children that is probably inappropriate.” She recommends all technology like cell phones, tablets and computers be taken out of children’s rooms at night and charged in a secure location.
Research shows the more time youth spend immersed in digital devices, the less time they spend on healthy, real-life activities like sports, music, outdoor recreation, and face-to-face interactions with their peers.
Carroll and her husband, Bill, a Hilton Head native and orthopedic surgeon, appreciate the family atmosphere and access to nature on Daniel Island, where they feel safe letting their kids ride bikes around the neighborhood.
“It is just a utopia for raising children,” she said. “These types of neighborhoods that are reminiscent of how Bill and I grew up are hard to find in this day and age.”