42 US States Sue Meta over "Harmful" & "Addictive" Features Used to Hook Children onto Social Media

Amrusha Chati

Amrusha Chati

25 October 20236 min read

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    In a historic move, 42 US States are suing Meta Platforms over "harmful" & "addictive" features to hook children onto social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook.

    On Tuesday, October 24, the attorney generals of 33 states filed a joint lawsuit against technology giant Meta (formerly Facebook) in a California federal court. Meanwhile, eight more states are filing similar suits in their respective states, bringing the tally to 42 states.

    The lawsuit alleges that the parent company for immensely popular platforms like Facebook and Instagram “has profoundly altered the psychological and social realities of a generation of young Americans.”

    This has created a rare wave of bipartisan support from attorney generals across states. The lawmakers seem to have sought strength in numbers to protect their local state interests in going against a corporate behemoth like Meta, which currently has a market capitalization of over $800 billion.

    Hawaiʻi Deputy Attorney General Christopher Han, who is leading the state's litigation efforts against Meta, said in a statement to Trademarkia that:

    "This lawsuit sends a message to social media platforms that Hawaiʻi does not tolerate disingenuous and predatory practices against children" and that the Hawai'i AG's office is proud to join this “nationwide effort.”

    Echoing this sentiment, in a statement to the press, New York Attorney General Letitia James said, "Kids and teenagers are suffering from record levels of poor mental health, and social media companies like Meta are to blame." She further says such companies "have contributed to a national youth mental health crisis, and they must be held accountable."

    Which states are suing Meta?

    States that part of the joint federal lawsuit filed in the US 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.

    Eight states are filing their own federal lawsuit in their respective state courts. These are:

    The District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Florida, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, and Vermont.

    What is Meta accused of?

    The joint lawsuit levels a slew of allegations against Meta in a strongly worded document that says:

    “Meta has harnessed powerful and unprecedented technologies to entice, engage, and ultimately ensnare youth and teens.”

    Here are some of the key allegations that the states have made against Meta:

    1. "Meta's business model is based on maximizing the time that young users spend on its social media platforms."

    The allegation is that Meta deliberately targets young users and also incentivizes its employees to develop new ways to increase the time young or underage users spend on its platforms. The more time they spend, the more Meta earns through targeted advertising.

    2. "Meta has developed and refined a set of psychologically manipulative Platform features."

    Meta is apparently knowingly designing features to keep children hooked onto the platforms and spend more time there. The lawsuit also claims that "young users developing brains are particularly vulnerable to certain forms of manipulation" and that it wilfully chose to exploit those vulnerabilities through features such as:

    (a) dopamine-manipulating recommendation algorithms

    (b) "Likes" and social comparison features

    (c) audiovisual and haptic alerts that "incessantly" lure young users

    (d) visual filter features that promote body dysmorphia

    (e) the infinite scroll, designed to discourage young users' attempts to self-regulate and disengage

    3. "Meta deceptively represented that the features were not manipulative."

    Meta allegedly claimed in its marketing to young users that platforms like Instagram were "not designed to promote young users' prolonged and unhealthy engagement with social media" and that these platforms were designed and maintained to ensure safe experiences for children. The lawsuit states that "These representations, both express and implied, were false and misleading."

    4. “Meta routinely published profoundly misleading reports."

    These reports allegedly show inaccurate and "impressively low rates of negative and harmful experiences by users" in an attempt "to assuage public concerns about harms to young users."

    5. "Meta has continued to conceal and downplay its Platforms' adverse effects."

    The suit claims that research has shown Meta's Social Media Platforms are associated with "depression, anxiety, insomnia, interference with education and daily life," and many other impacts on young people's mental health.

    It also refers to controversial internal studies commissioned by Meta, which were leaked by a whistleblower in 2021. The whistleblower, Frances Haugen, went public through an interview on "60 Minutes" in October 2021.

    On October 5, 2021, she also testified before a Senate subcommittee for more than three hours. She revealed documents that showed Facebook had deliberately hidden disturbing research about how teenagers feel worse about themselves after using its products.

    The documents also showed that the company was willing to use negative or hateful content on its site to keep users coming back. In her testimony, she urged lawmakers to demand more documents and internal research from Meta, as the documents she had provided were apparently "just the tip of the iceberg."

    6. "Meta has flouted its obligations under the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)."

    One of the most serious allegations made by the joint lawsuit is that Meta is "unlawfully collecting the personal data of its youngest users without their parent's permission." It claims that Meta has knowledge that children under the age of 13 use its platforms.

    Despite knowing this, it has "refused to obtain (or even to attempt to obtain) the consent of those children's parents prior to collecting and monetizing their personal data." It claims that Meta routinely collects data from and about young users and refuses to limit the collection of such data.

    It further states,These constitute unfair and/or deceptive acts or practices under the state consumer protection statutes, violate COPPA, and further constitute unlawful acts under common law principles.”

    In these cases, Meta could face civil penalties of $1,000 to $50,000 for each violation of state laws. This could eventually add up to a massive amount, given the millions of young children and teenagers who use Instagram.

    Social media under the scanner?

    In a statement to Reuters, Meta said it was "disappointed" in the lawsuit.

    "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 company said.

    But the coalition of attorneys general is presenting a united front so far.

    "The deceptive and unfair practices used by Meta have deeply harmed our youth," said Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser. These lawsuits are the result of a bipartisan, nationwide investigation led by Weiser and Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti.

    Nearly all the attorneys general in the country have worked together since 2021 to investigate Meta. They are unanimous in their opposition to Meta for providing and promoting its social media platforms to children and young adults, while using these is associated with risk of physical and mental health harms.

    Colorado AG Weiser says in his 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.”

    And Meta is not the only one under the scanner. The multistate coalition that brought today's federal complaint is also investigating Bytedance-owned TikTok's conduct on a similar set of concerns. That investigation is ongoing, and a number of states have already filed similar lawsuits against TikTok.

    The outcome of this lawsuit could have a vast impact on the entire social media landscape within the US and globally. Meta is headquartered in Menlo Park, California, USA, which means that any major changes to its operations in the US will likely have a ripple effect globally.

    It could also set a significant precedent for other countries looking to regulate the use of social media platforms.

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    Amrusha is a versatile professional with over 12 years of experience in journalism, broadcast news production, and media consulting. Her impressive career includes collaborating extensively with prominent global enterprises. She garnered recognition for her exceptional work in producing acclaimed shows for Bloomberg, a renowned business news network. Notably, these shows have been incorporated into the esteemed curriculum of Harvard Business School. Amrusha's expertise also encompassed a 4-year tenure as a consultant at Omidyar Network, a leading global impact investing firm. In addition, she played a pivotal role in the launch and content strategy management of the startup Live History India.