A bipartisan group of 42 attorneys general is suing Meta, alleging that features on its Facebook and Instagram social media platforms are addictive and are aimed at kids and teens, the group announced Tuesday. The support from so many state attorneys general of different political backgrounds indicates a significant legal challenge to Meta’s business.
Meta is now facing multiple lawsuits on this issue in several districts. Attorneys general from 33 states filed a federal suit against Meta in the Northern District of California, while nine additional attorneys general are filing in their own states, according to a press release from New York Attorney General Letitia James’ office. Besides New York, the states that filed the federal suit include California, Colorado, Louisiana, Nebraska, South Carolina, Washington and Wisconsin.
The lawsuits are another demonstration of the bipartisan priority state law enforcers have placed on protecting kids and teens from online harm.
It’s also not the first time a broad coalition of state attorneys general have teamed up to go after Meta. In 2020, 48 states and territories sued the company on antitrust grounds, alongside a separate complaint from the Federal Trade Commission.
Meta designed its Facebook and Instagram products to keep young users on them for longer and repeatedly coming back, the attorneys general allege. According to the federal complaint, Meta did this via the design of its algorithms, copious alerts, notifications and so-called infinite scroll through platform feeds. The company also includes features that the AGs allege negatively impact teens’ mental health through social comparison or promoting body dysmorphia, such as “likes” or photo filters.
The federal suit also accuses Meta of violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, by collecting personal data on users under 13 without parental consent.
The states are seeking an end to what they see as Meta’s harmful practices, as well as penalties and restitution.
Meta was well aware of the negative effects its design could have on its young users, the attorneys general allege.
“While Meta has publicly denied and downplayed these harmful effects, it cannot credibly plead ignorance,” James’ office wrote in a press release. “Meta’s own internal research documents show its awareness that its products harm young users. Indeed, internal studies that Meta commissioned — and kept private until they were leaked by a whistleblower and publicly reported — reveal that Meta has known for years about these serious harms associated with young users’ time spent on its platforms.”
Former Facebook employee Frances Haugen caused an uproar among lawmakers and parents in 2021 after leaking internal documents from the company that revealed internal research on its products. One set of documents about Instagram’s impact on teens found that “thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” The Wall Street Journal reported before Haugen made her identity known. Following the report, Instagram said it was working on ways to pull users away from dwelling on negative topics.
“It should have been the practice of Meta to alert people that they were dealing with a dangerous, potentially addictive product before they started using it,” District of Columbia Attorney General Brian Schwalb told CNBC in a phone interview. Schwalb is among the attorneys general who filed an individual suit against Meta alleging it violated the district’s consumer protection law.
“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,” Meta spokesperson Andy Stone said in a statement. “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.”
Several of the practices the attorneys general focus on for Meta are similar to those exercised by other social media businesses, such as designing algorithms to keep users engaged.
Schwalb said that while he doesn’t think Meta is the only company trying to keep users’ attention with its features, “they do it very, very effectively and to the great detriment of millions of young people and tens of thousands of young people here in the District.”
“All human beings are susceptible to FOMO,” Schwalb said, referring to the fear of missing out. “But particularly 12- to 14-, 15-, 16-year-old kids. They’re the ones who are really worried about missing out. All of that is part of the built-in DNA that Meta uses to keep people hooked.”
The broad coalition of bipartisan attorneys general underscores the wide-ranging interest from law enforcers on both sides of the aisle in consumer protection issues like this one. President Joe Biden has also made it a point to discuss the priority of protecting kids’ safety and mental health online in his State of the Union.
“I think when you find an issue like this, it’s a good opportunity for AGs to link arms across party [lines] to try to make America a safer place,” Schwalb said.
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