Florida lawmakers have recently filed a bill that seeks to restrict children’s access to social media, specifically everyone under 16. If the bill becomes law, that will mean that the tech giants who own these networks will be required to shut down all accounts owned by minors in the state. The primary reason behind the idea of such a radical measure is the negative effects social media has on children’s mental health, something that is backed by numerous studies.
But mental health is only part of the risks young people face every day while spending a lot of time on social media. From dangerous challenges to child predators, parental control on social media is something that both parents and their children must agree on. The case of 17-year-old Gavin Guffey, a South Carolina boy who took his own life nearly two years ago, is just another reminder of how important controlling social media activity is.
A case with huge media attention
When this incident took place in July 2022, many questions remained unanswered, even though this case got huge media attention since the victim’s father was South Carolina State House Rep. Brandon Guffey. The grieving father decided to pursue the answers himself. It all started less than a month after Gavin’s funeral, when Rep. Guffey received a message from an unknown user on Instagram demanding money in exchange for nude photos of his late son. Shortly after the first message, Guffey’s younger son received a similar message as everyone else on Gavin’s Instagram followers list who had the last name Guffey.
Gavin’s family found out he was tricked by a scammer on Instagram, leading him to become a victim of sexual blackmail. This is a growing crime that the FBI says is attacking young boys more and more, causing a rise in suicides across the country.
Now, Gavin’s family is taking legal action against Instagram’s owner, Meta, accusing them of not protecting kids from online dangers. They claim Meta is responsible for Gavin’s death and other serious problems because they didn’t keep children safe on their platforms.
The legal case, brought up in South Carolina, says that Meta’s social networks contribute to various issues for kids, like sadness, low self-worth, worry, and eating problems. It argues that Meta targets teenagers with its algorithms and fails to shield them from risks.
The lawsuit states that Meta lacks measures to safeguard young users, who are often not aware of the dangers, even though they use Instagram for many parts of their daily lives. Despite Meta always saying that keeping minors safe is their main concern, they chose not to publicly comment this lawsuit.
The moments before the incident
Just before Gavin took his own life at his house in Rock Hill, South Carolina, he sent his younger brother and his friends a love symbol – a heart (<3) – on a dark background.
Following his son’s tragic death, Guffey has been vocal and even helped push for a new law last year that treats sexual blackmail as a serious crime with prison time if the victim is a young person or someone who is easily hurt, or if the victim ends up hurt or dead because of the crime.
This proposed law, called “Gavin’s Law,” was approved by state lawmakers and then signed by Governor Henry McMaster, making it official.
Gavin was tricked by fraudsters on Instagram who made him believe he was chatting with a girl his age, and they convinced him to share personal photos, according to his dad.
Right after, the blackmail began. The scammers wanted money, and Gavin, having only $25, sent it through Venmo, begging the scammers for more time, his father shared.
“He was telling them he would get them more money, please don’t send these images out … they didn’t care,” Guffey said to CNN. “I think in his mind it was just too much, and he didn’t know how he would overcome that.”
After his death, the scammers sent Guffey a laughing face emoji and a message using a pseudo account on Instagram after the original one was shut down. “It said, ‘did I tell you your son begged for his life?’” Guffey says. They also demanded money in exchange for the photos.
The police advised him not to reply to the message. Guffey mentioned that it required all the willpower he had to follow their advice and not engage with them.
“There were numerous accounts tied to one person. They took one down, and the person then began to extort my 14-year-old cousin, my 16-year-old son, they even went as far as sending me a message saying my son begged for his life. This was within 30 days of me burying my son,” he says.
States regulating social media use in minors
Utah became the first U.S. state to adopt laws regulating children’s access to social media in March 2023, followed by others, such as Arkansas, Louisiana, Ohio and Texas, according to a legislative analysis prepared for the Florida bill. It said numerous other states were also contemplating similar regulations.