Meta is being sued by 42 attorneys general for allegedly designing Facebook and Instagram to be addictive. The bipartisan group from 33 states is accusing the social media platforms of creating an addictive platform that negatively affects the mental health of kids and teens.
The lawsuit outlines how Meta developed its platforms to encourage use despite knowing about the potential harms. The suit lists undisclosed internal documents showing a lengthy history of developing algorithms, alerts, endless scrolling, and notification settings to keep teens checking the app.
“This is not an action we take lightly,” said Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, according to CNBC. “This is not a case that we know is going to be decided very quickly. But it’s of the utmost importance. That’s why we dedicated level resources of the state agencies brought together here addressing issues that are top of our national agenda.”
This marks the latest attempt by the government to rein in the powers of Big Tech. The Federal Trade Commission has sued Amazon for abusing the influence and control it has over its online retail platform, and the Justice Department and various state attorneys general are in a trial against Google alleging antitrust behavior with its search engine. Meta, however, has already dealt with a string of controversies ranging from its handling of personal data to the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Attorneys general from 33 states filed the lawsuit yesterday in the Northern District of California, with an additional nine filing in their own states. Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin all filed the lawsuit. Florida is filing its federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida. The Districts of Colombia, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, and Vermont are filing in their states.
“The time has come for social media giants to stop trading in our children’s mental health for big profits,” said Attorney General Michelle Henry in a statement. “According to the lawsuit, Meta not only targets young minds with addictive, harmful, trap-door content – it also lies to the public and parents about how their platforms are safe. Creators have built multi-billion dollar empires by promoting a click-bait culture that is psychologically hurting kids.”
The federal suit accuses Meta of violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act by collecting personal data on users under 13 without parental consent. The lawsuit goes on to describe how teens’ mental health is negatively affected as the apps promote body dysmorphia through the use of filters and “likes,” which promote unhealthy comparisons.
Meta is accused of knowingly contributing to a “youth mental health crisis,” which has fueled violence, increased the risks of suicide among youths, and “damaged the potential of a generation of young people.”
“Consistent with this business model, Meta has developed and refined a set of psychologically manipulative Platform features designed to maximize young users’ time spent on its Social Media Platform,” the lawsuit says. “Meta was aware that young users’ developing brains are particularly vulnerable to certain forms of manipulation, and it chose to exploit those vulnerabilities through targeted features such as dopamine-manipulating recommendation algorithms.”
Meta denies the allegations, saying the research on social media and adverse mental health is inconclusive. The company says it is engaging in “meaningful dialogue” with the attorneys general to support young people, such as setting users accounts to private if they’re under 16, age verification, parental supervision tools, Quiet Mode, Take A Break alerts, and limiting the type of content minors can see.
“We share 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,” said a spokesperson for Meta. “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.”
This is not the first time Meta has been summoned to court over concerns of its platforms’ safety and integrity. In December 2020, the Federal Trade Commission, along with 48 states and territories, sued the company over anti-competitive conduct concerning Facebook and WhatsApp.