Numerous U.S. states are taking legal action against Meta Platforms (META.O) and its subsidiary Instagram, alleging that they have played a role in exacerbating a youth mental health crisis due to the addictive characteristics of their social media platforms.
In a lawsuit submitted to the federal court in Oakland, California, on Tuesday, 33 states, including California and Illinois, asserted that Meta, which also manages Facebook, has consistently provided misleading information to the public about the significant risks associated with its platforms. The company is accused of intentionally encouraging addictive and compulsive use of social media among young children and teenagers.
According to the complaint, research has demonstrated that the use of Meta’s social media platforms by young individuals is linked to issues like depression, anxiety, insomnia, disruptions to education and daily routines, and various other adverse consequences.
This lawsuit is part of a series of legal proceedings against social media companies involving children and teenagers. Companies such as ByteDance’s TikTok and Google’s YouTube are also facing hundreds of lawsuits filed on behalf of children and educational institutions regarding the addictive nature of social media.
According to the complaint, Meta has utilized advanced and unparalleled technologies to attract, engage, and ultimately captivate young people and adolescents, with profit being the primary motivator.
The lawsuit aims to secure various forms of redress, including significant civil penalties.
In response, Meta stated that it has been dedicated to enhancing the safety of young individuals on the internet. The company expressed disappointment that, instead of collaborating constructively with various industry firms to establish clear and age-appropriate standards for the numerous apps that teenagers use, the attorneys general have opted for this legal path.
Following the public announcement of the states’ lawsuit, Meta shares experienced a slight decline of 0.3%.
A significant portion of the attention on Meta arises from the release of documents in 2021, which revealed that the company possessed data indicating that Instagram, originally a photo-sharing app, was addictive and exacerbated body image concerns among some teenage girls.
The lawsuit contends that Meta intentionally strives to ensure that young individuals spend as much time as possible on social media, even though it is aware that teenage brains are particularly susceptible to seeking approval through “likes” from other users on their content. The lawsuit further asserts that Meta deceptively denied the harm caused by its social media platforms in public statements.
The complaint mentions that as recently as 2020, Meta continued to design its platforms in a manner that manipulated dopamine responses in young users to maximize their time spent on these platforms. Meta did not disclose that its algorithms were tailored to exploit the dopamine responses of young users and create an addictive cycle of engagement.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure.
The lawsuit also alleges that Meta violated a law prohibiting the collection of data from children under the age of 13.
This state action seeks to address the gaps left by the U.S. Congress’s inability to pass new online protections for children, despite years of discussions.
Furthermore, the lawsuit claims that Meta aims to extend practices that the states consider harmful into the realm of virtual reality, including Meta’s Horizon Worlds platform as well as the messaging apps WhatsApp and Messenger.
California Attorney General Rob Bonta stated, “Meta has been harming our children and teens, cultivating addiction to boost corporate profits.”
Attorneys general for New Hampshire and Washington, DC, have also filed related lawsuits in local courts, while seven other states are expected to file similar lawsuits on the same day, bringing the total number of states suing to 42.
The Menlo Park, California-based company, along with other social media firms, is already facing numerous lawsuits initiated on behalf of children and educational institutions, all of which raise similar claims.
Reported by Jonathan Stempel in New York and Diane Bartz, David Shepardson, and Nate Raymond; Edited by Rod Nickel and Lisa Shumaker