Facebook, Instagram Sued by 33 States Over Harm to Youth Mental Health

by Liz Neporent
October 25, 2023 at 11:05 AM UTC

A coalition of 33 states has filed a lawsuit against Meta Platforms Inc., accusing it of engineering addictive features and collecting data on children without parental consent, posing harm to their mental health.

Clinical Relevance: Social media can damage the mental wellbeing of younger users

  • A coalition of 33 states takes on social media giant Meta, seeking accountability for its Instagram and Facebook networks impact on young people.
  • Meta faces allegations of engineering addictive features for children and collecting data without parental consent.
  • Disturbing revelations from Meta’s internal research lead to this rare bipartisan agreement that seeks to mitigate any harmful effects of social media on teenagers and younger children.

In a move that could hold a social media giant accountable for its services’ effects on young people’s mental health, a bipartisan coalition of 33 states have filed a lawsuit against Meta Platforms Inc., the parent company of Instagram and Facebook. 

Allegations of Exploiting Young Users

The lawsuit alleges that Meta has knowingly engineered features within its platforms that are addictive to children. It also claims that Meta has been collecting data on children under the age of 13 without obtaining the necessary parental consent, a direct violation of federal law. 

“Our bipartisan investigation has arrived at a solemn conclusion: Meta has been harming our children and teens, cultivating addiction to boost corporate profits,” said California Attorney General Rob Bonta, who spearheaded the suit, in a statement.

“With today’s lawsuit, we are drawing the line. We must protect our children, and we will not back down from this fight.”

New York is also among the states who have joined the suit. New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement, “Kids and teenagers are suffering from record levels of poor mental health and social media companies like Meta are to blame. 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.”

Lawsuit Details

The 233-page legal document, filed in a federal court in Northern California, scrutinizes the intricacies of how Meta allegedly violated consumer protection laws and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which is designed to safeguard the privacy of children under the age of 13.  The investigation leading up to this lawsuit was a collaborative effort by attorneys general from 33 states as well as the District of Columbia. The heart of the lawsuit centers on two primary allegations. 

First, it accuses Meta of engaging in a “scheme to exploit young users for profit” by designing features to captivate young users’ attention, thereby prolonging their time on its platforms. This includes recommendation algorithms that encourage compulsive use. It also includes disruptive notifications that interfere with education and sleep, as well as the promotion of filters known to exacerbate eating disorders and body dysmorphia in youth.

The second key accusation pertains to Meta’s alleged violation of COPPA. The lawsuit claims that Meta does not obtain–or even attempt to obtain–verifiable parental consent before collecting personal information from children who use its services. It argues that while children under 13 are technically banned from these platforms, Meta’s actions don’t align with this prohibition, as evidenced by the prolific presence of underage users. A Pew Research Center survey released this year found that 62 percent of teens reported using Instagram to share photos and videos in 2022. The survey also noted the rising popularity of networks like YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat among teens.

A Troubling Internal Report

It is a rare bipartisan consensus sparked by a series of disturbing revelations, initially reported by The Wall Street Journal in 2021, which were based on Meta’s own research. 

The company’s internal studies revealed that Instagram, in particular, had a detrimental impact on teenagers, especially teen girls, by amplifying mental health and body image issues. Shocking statistics cited in the report found that 13.5 percent of teen girls believed Instagram worsened thoughts of suicide, while 17 percent felt it exacerbated eating disorders.

Whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former Meta employee, further supported these findings by providing leaked documents to various news organizations. Haugen’s revelations raised public awareness and put significant pressure on regulatory authorities to take action against Meta.

Meta, however, has maintained that its research was “mischaracterized.” They submit that some teens reported positive effects from using Instagram, such as alleviating loneliness and sadness. The company also countered that it doesn’t need parental consent because children shouldn’t be on its platforms in the first place.

In responding to the legal action, Meta expressed disappointment and emphasized its commitment to providing a safe online experience for teens. The company stated that it had introduced over 30 tools to support young users and their families. It called for collaboration among social media companies to establish clear, age-appropriate standards for teen app use.

What’s at Stake

Hansa Bhargava, MD, a pediatrician and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said that the lawsuit raises fundamental questions about the intersection of technology, corporate responsibility, and child safety. 

“There is evidence to show that social media promotes addictive behavior that stimulates the dopamine pathways,” Bhargava explained. “And unfortunately, the algorithms that companies often use promote that addictive behavior as the child keeps being fed content. What they are looking for, and track using those algorithms, is what the child’s interested in.”

Bhargava added that hours spent on social media steals important time away from interacting with family and friends, which can provoke feelings of depression, isolation, and loneliness. She also points out that many young people, especially girls, derive their self-worth and self-esteem from social media. This can lead to devastating effects, including eating disorders and self-harm.

Privacy and unrestricted data collection were Bhargava’s other real concerns, especially because teens often don’t yet have the developmental capacity to understand the dangers of oversharing online. “Kids definitely are not abstract thinkers and will not be able to understand the long term implications of posting something on social media,” she said.

Bhargava welcomed the guardrails the lawsuit could help put in place. “Parents need to pay attention to what their kids are doing online, but it’s impossible to keep up and they need the companies to do their part to help protect them.”

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