May 28, 2024

Meta designed features in Instagram and other apps to “purposefully addict children and teens,” a group of 42 state attorneys general alleged in federal and state lawsuits filed Tuesday.

Asked for comment, a Meta spokesperson said in a statement, “We share the attorneys general’s commitment to providing teens with safe, positive experiences online, and have already introduced more than 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.”

In a federal lawsuit, the attorneys general assert that Meta’s business practices violate state consumer protection laws and the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). The complaint seeks injunctive relief as well as unspecified monetary damages “to rectify the harms caused by these platforms,” according to the state AGs’ announcement. A redacted copy of the lawsuit is available at this link.

The social giant’s practices have “harmed and continue to harm the physical and mental health of children and teens” and have contributed to what the U.S. Surgeon General has called a “youth mental health crisis” that has “ended lives, devastated families and damaged the potential of a generation of young people,” according to the announcement from the coalition of state attorneys general.

“The deceptive and unfair practices used by Meta have deeply harmed our youth,” Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said in a statement. “We must address the insidious impact the compulsive use of Meta’s platforms has had on our young generation. Just like Big Tobacco and vaping companies have done in years past, Meta chose to maximize its profits at the expense of public health, specifically harming the health of the youngest among us. We will work tirelessly to hold the company accountable for the harm it has and continues to inflict.”

The federal complaint, joined by 33 states and filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, alleges that Meta knew of the harmful impact of its platforms, including Facebook and Instagram, on young people. Per the lawsuit, rather than taking steps to mitigate those harms, Meta misled the public about the harms associated with use of its platform, concealing the extent of the psychological and health harms suffered by young users addicted to use of its platforms. The complaint further alleges that Meta knew that young users, including those under 13, were active on the platforms, and knowingly collected data from these users without parental consent.

While much of the complaint relies on confidential material that is not yet available to the public, publicly available sources including those previously released by former Meta employees detail that Meta profited by purposely making its platforms addictive to children and teens, according to the state attorneys general — using algorithms to push users into “rabbit holes” in an effort to maximize engagement. The state AGs cited the comments of Aza Raskin, the original developer of the “infinite-scroll” concept who formerly worked at Mozilla, in a 2018 interview with the BBC about the feature’s addictive qualities: “If you don’t give your brain time to catch up with your impulses… you just keep scrolling.”

In parallel complaints filed in state courts Tuesday, another seven states and the District of Columbia made similar allegations about Meta’s practices targeting kids. Tennessee’s state complaint, for example, is seeking injunctive and monetary relief for Instagram’s “unfair and deceptive acts,” alleging that Meta designed Instagram to be addictive, purposefully targeted children and teens, and took advantage of their biologically limited capacity for self-control. Meta knew, the complaint alleges, of the wide range of harms compulsive use caused, including increased levels of depression, anxiety, and attention deficit disorders; altered psychological and neurological development; and reduced sleep. Yet, the company continued to assure the public Instagram was safe and concealed the known significant risks of the platform.

The multistate coalition that sued Meta said it is also investigating TikTok’s conduct on a similar set of concerns. That investigation remains ongoing, and Colorado has pushed for “adequate disclosure of information and documents in litigation related to TikTok’s failure to provide adequate discovery in response to requests by the Tennessee Attorney General’s office,” according to a press release from Weiser’s office.

States joining the federal lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California are Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, 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. Florida is filing its own federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida.

Filing lawsuits in their own state courts are the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah and Vermont.

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