Over 40 states in the US are suing Facebook and Instagram parent company Meta, alleging their platforms are harmful and compound mental health problems for children.
The lawsuit puts much focus on Facebook and Instagram, which are said to be “manipulative and exploitative”. The states allege that Meta deliberately designed its platforms to be addictive to young people, and they are adding to their mental health issues.
They cite numerous studies, including Meta’s own, that have shown a link between young people’s Facebook and Instagram usage and health problems, among them depression and anxiety.
Profit over children’s wellness
According to the New York Times report, Colorado and California led a joint lawsuit, which was filed by 33 states in the US District Court for the Northern District of California for violation of consumer protection laws.
They alleged that the social media giant deliberately and unfairly ensnared children as well as deceived users over its platforms’ safety. Another separate lawsuit came in from the District of Columbia and eight other states with similar allegations.
According to Zdnet, the core of the allegations against Meta revolves around the company’s practices of prioritizing profit over users well-being, especially children’s.
The filings show that Meta is exploiting young users for profit through various means, including increasing engagement, data harvesting, misleading safety feature advertising, and promoting unhealthy social expectations, sleep patterns, and body image.
“Meta has preyed on an entire generation of young people for profit,” said Andrea Joy Campbell, attorney general of Massachusetts, which is one of the eight states plus the District of Columbia that filed suits.
It is also alleged that Facebook and Instagram violate the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA) by collecting personal information without parental consent while marketing these platforms to a younger demographic.
Another thorny issue cited in the lawsuit is Meta’s algorithms, which are deemed exploitative and predatory, although there isn’t much public information about how they function or are responsible for the content that appears on one’s feed.
According to USA Today, Meta’s algorithms “dispense dopamine,” which is the “pleasure chemical,” in a fashion that makes young users “engage repeatedly with its platforms—much like a gambler at a slot machine.”
This has been argued to have a direct influence on mental health and body image concerns, especially among teenage girls.
According to the filings, Meta’s designs “deliberately exploited young people’s still-developing brains and adolescent vulnerabilities,” with features such as “infinite scroll,” near-constant notifications, stories, and reels made to induce a fear of missing out (FOMO) in young users.
The “Facebook Papers”
These issues have not started today but surfaced in 2021 following admissions by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen. Haugen released a collection of internal Facebook documents known as the Facebook Papers, which were said to indicate that Meta continuously put profits ahead of the interests of the public.
Additionally, these records suggested that Meta was aware of Instagram’s detrimental effects on young people’s mental health, body image, anxiety, and depression.
In response to these concerns, the US Surgeon General issued a social media health advisory for American teenagers. Lawmakers and legal experts have been grappling with how to protect children in the age of big tech.
Now the federal lawsuit boasts the support of 33 US attorneys general, who have joined forces to combat online harm against children.
“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,” Phil Weiser, Colorado’s attorney general, said.
Weiser was reminiscing about past lawsuits against industries like Big Tobacco and Big Pharma, which faced substantial legal consequences and financial penalties.
Big on tech, not big on child protection
A growing number of lawsuits have been filed to improve children’s safety on the internet in recent years. Tech behemoths like Microsoft, Amazon, Google, YouTube, Amazon, and Meta have been sued in the US and the EU for allegedly breaking online children’s protection legislation.
In addition, TikTok is facing ongoing legal problems pertaining to kid safety, as 46 US attorneys general launched an inquiry into the platform in 2022 to find out if the social media platform breached any consumer protection laws.
The latest lawsuit against Meta indicates that the inability of teens and kids to regulate themselves has resulted in “significant and concerning negative impacts on the brain development and mental health of teen users.”
The suit also notes that the number of high school girls who have considered suicide grew to 30% in 2022, yet the rate was 19% 10 years earlier when Instagram launched. Last year, the parents of a 19-year-old girl sued Meta, alleging their daughter had become addicted to its Instagram and developed “eating disorders and suicidal ideation.”