By BARBARA ORTUTAY (AP Technology Writer)
Dozens of U.S. states, including California and New York, are suing Meta Platforms Inc., alleging that the company is harming young people and contributing to the mental health crisis among young people by knowingly and intentionally developing features on Instagram and Facebook that disfavor children Make platforms dependent.
A lawsuit filed by 33 states in federal court in California alleges that Meta routinely collects data from children under 13 without their parents’ consent, in violation of federal law. Additionally, nine attorneys general are filing lawsuits in their respective states, bringing the total number of states taking action to 41 and Washington, DC
“Meta has leveraged powerful and unprecedented technologies to entice, engage and ultimately captivate teens and teens. His motive is profit, and in an effort to maximize his financial gains, Meta has repeatedly misled the public about the significant dangers of his social media platforms,” the complaint states. “It has obscured the way these platforms exploit and manipulate their most vulnerable consumers: teenagers and children.”
The lawsuits seek monetary damages and compensation as well as an end to Meta’s unlawful practices.
“Children and teens are suffering from record levels of poor mental health and social media companies like Meta are to blame,” New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement. “Meta has profited from the suffering of children by intentionally equipping its platforms with manipulative features that make children dependent on their platforms while weakening their self-esteem.”
In a statement, Meta said it shares “the Attorney General’s commitment to providing teens with safe, positive online experiences and has already launched over 30 tools to support teens and their families.”
“We are disappointed that state attorneys general have chosen this path instead of working productively with companies across the industry to create clear, age-appropriate standards for the many apps that teens use,” the company added.
The wide-ranging federal lawsuit is the result of an investigation led by a bipartisan coalition of attorneys general from California, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, Tennessee and Vermont. It follows damning newspaper reports, first from the Wall Street Journal in fall 2021, based on Meta’s own research that found the company knew about the harm Instagram can do to teenagers – especially teenage girls – when it comes to mental health Health and the body involves image problems. In an internal study, 13.5% of teenage girls said Instagram worsened suicidal thoughts, and 17% of teenage girls said it worsened eating disorders.
After the initial reports, a consortium of news organizations, including The Associated Press, released their own findings based on leaked documents from whistleblower Frances Haugen, who testified about her findings before Congress and a British parliamentary committee.
“Meta harmed our children and youth and promoted addiction to increase corporate profits,” said California Attorney General Rob Bonta. “With today’s lawsuit we are drawing a line in the sand.”
Social media use among teenagers is nearly universal in the United States and many other parts of the world. Nearly all teenagers ages 13 to 17 in the U.S. say they use a social media platform, with about a third saying they use social media “almost constantly,” according to the Pew Research Center.
To comply with federal regulations, social media companies prohibit children under 13 from logging onto their platforms. However, it has been shown that children can easily circumvent the bans, both with and without their parents’ consent, and many younger children have social media accounts. The states’ complaint alleges that Meta knowingly violated that law, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, by collecting data about children without informing their parents or obtaining their permission.
Other measures that social platforms have taken to address concerns about children’s mental health can also be easily circumvented. For example, TikTok recently introduced a default time limit of 60 minutes for users under 18. However, once the limit is reached, minors can simply enter a passcode to continue watching. TikTok, Snapchat and other social platforms also accused of contributing to youth mental health crises are not part of Tuesday’s lawsuit.
Washington DC Attorney General Brian Schwalb declined to comment on whether they also watch TikTok or Snapchat. At the moment the focus is on the meta-empire of Facebook and Instagram, he said.
“They are the worst of the worst when it comes to using technology to addict teens to social media, all with the goal of putting profits over people.”
In May, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy called on technology companies, parents and carers to “take immediate action to protect children now” from the harms of social media.
Associated Press writers Michael Casey, Michael Goldberg, Susan Haigh, Maysoon Khan and Ashraf Khalil contributed to this story.