Complaint Alleges Facebook and Instagram Addict Youth for Profit
A coalition of 41 states, including Oregon and Washington, sued Meta this week in federal and state courts for intentionally designing social media platforms to “addict children and teens”, resulting in their “mental and physical detriment”. The suits seek financial damages and social media platform changes.
The complaint says, “Meta has harnessed powerful and unprecedented technologies to entice, engage and ultimately ensnare youth and teens. 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.”
California Attorney General Rob Bonta, who filed the lawsuit, said, “Meta has been harming our children and teens, cultivating addiction to boost corporate profits. With today’s lawsuit, we are drawing the line. We must protect our children and we will not back down from this fight. I am grateful for the collaboration of my fellow state attorneys general in standing up for our children and holding Meta accountable.”
Meta responded in a statement that Meta shares “the attorneys general’s commitment to providing teens with safe, positive experiences online, and have already introduced over 30 tools to support teens and their families. We’re disappointed that instead of working productively with companies across the industry to create clear, age-appropriate standards for the many apps teens use, the attorneys general have chosen this path.”
The legal action alleges Meta violated federal and state laws, including the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), California’s False Advertising Law (FAL) and California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL). The Los Angeles Times explained COPPA is a federal law that protects the online privacy of children under 13 years old and California’s FAL prohibits false and misleading advertising. California’s UCL prohibits unlawful, unfair and fraudulent business practices.
“Meta has harnessed powerful and unprecedented technologies to entice, engage and ultimately ensnare youth and teens. Its motive is profit.”
Not the First Legal Action
Under the lead of New York’s attorney general, a large coalition that included Oregon sued Meta for antitrust violations involving its acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp. The suit was dismissed last spring in a federal appeals court. The Federal Trade Commission also turned back an attempt in 2021 to block Facebook’s acquisition of the virtual reality business Within.
The latest legal action aimed at Meta comes as states have tried with mixed success to adopt legislation addressing social media influence on young people. Most state legal efforts require some form of parental control and time limits on access to social media platforms. The California Assembly has taken the most original approach by requiring social media companies to design their platforms to minimize the risk of addiction.
All of the variety of state laws have or are being challenged in court by tech companies that argue the laws violate the First Amendment and the privacy rights of minors.
Several states have been looking at Meta’s outreach to young social media users since 2021, focused on the tech company’s promotion of Instagram. Advocacy groups say Meta has failed to combat content about eating disorders, suicide and other potential harms, citing documents disclosed by a former Facebook product manager that revealed internal research showing the platform was “toxic for teen girls”.
According to Child Mind Institute, “Social media affects teenagers’ mental health negatively by limiting direct contact with peers and encouraging constant comparison online, which can lead to low self-esteem, anxiety and depression.”
Meta said its research was “mischaracterized” and pointed to survey results indicating teens felt Instagram made them feel better and less lonely. In 2021, Meta officials testified before Congress that Instagram had paused release of a kid version of the app to include parental controls and reinforce minimum age limits to use it.
Pew Research shared survey results earlier this year indicating 62 percent of teens use Instagram, as well as YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat. The same attorneys general coalition is continuing a parallel investigation of TikTok’s harm to young users.
Rise in Teenage Depression
Rates of adolescent depression in the United States have doubled since 2009, according to National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Data indicates one in five teenage girls and 7 percent of teenage boys have experienced at least one major depressive episode.
A Pew Research survey of teenagers found academic and social pressures were factors in depression. About six-in-ten teens (61%) said they personally felt a lot of pressure to get good grades, while roughly three-in-ten reported a lot of pressure to look good and fit in socially (29% and 28%, respectively).
“Kids and teenagers are suffering from record levels of poor mental health and social media companies like Meta are to blame,” says New York Attorney General Letitia James. “Meta has profited from children’s pain by intentionally designing its platforms with manipulative features that make children addicted to their platforms while lowering their self-esteem.”
Washington, D.C., Attorney General Brian Schwalb said the suit focuses on Facebook and Instagram because “they’re the worst of the worst when it comes to using technology to addict teenagers to social media, all in the furtherance of putting profits over people.”
Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a plea in May for tech companies, parents and caregivers to take “immediate action to protect kids now” from the harms of social media.