Forty-one states in the United States are suing tech giant Meta alleging that the company’s social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook harm children’s mental health by building addictive features into their products.
In a 233-page complaint filed in federal court in the Northern District of California, 31 states including Colorado and California allege that the company engaged in a “scheme to exploit young users for profit” by misleading them about safety features and the prevalence of harmful content, harvesting their data and violating federal laws on children’s privacy, The Washington Post reported.
The District of Columbia and eight states are filing separate complaints in federal, state, or local courts.
Meta said it was “disappointed” that states chose to take a legal route instead of “working productively with companies.”
The lawsuit alleges that Meta knowingly induced young children and teenagers into addictive and compulsive social media use while it repeatedly misled the public about the dangers of its platforms.
“Meta has harnessed powerful and unprecedented technologies to entice, engage, and ultimately ensnare youth and teens,” the complaint said, adding that the social media giant’s “motive is profit”.
Reuters reported that states said, citing a research, that children’s use of Meta’s social media platforms is associated with “depression, anxiety, insomnia, interference with education and daily life, and many other negative outcomes”.
The lawsuit also accuses Mark Zuckerberg-founded social media company of violating a law banning the collection of data of children under age 13.
“Meta did not disclose that its algorithms were designed to capitalize on young users’ dopamine responses and create an addictive cycle of engagement,” the complaint said.
Citing the suicide of a a 14-year-old girl in the UK last year, the complaint said that Meta refused to accept responsibility and distanced itself from the incident.
States also expressed fear that the social media giant is looking to expand its harmful practices into its virtual reality platforms and messaging apps, including WhatsApp and Messenger.
The lawsuit aims to seek legal protections for children after US Congress failed to take action despite a hearing and years of public discussion.
Earlier in 2021, a former Meta employee turned whistleblower released internal documents that showed the company knew about Instagram’s impact on worsening body image issues for some teen girls. The revelations triggered a public debate on social media’s effect on children’s mental health and led to a congressional hearing.
“It is very clear that decisions made by social media platforms, like Meta, are part of what is driving mental health harms, physical health harms, and threats that we can’t ignore,” Colorado Attorney General Philip Weiser, who is co-leading the federal suit, said.
“At a time when our nation is not seeing the level of bipartisan problem-solving collaboration that we need, you can see it here among this group of attorneys general,” Weiser said during a joint news conference Tuesday.
“Our bipartisan investigation has arrived at a solemn conclusion: Meta has been harming our children and teens, cultivating addiction to boost corporate profits,” California Attorney General Rob Bonta, another key figure co-leading the effort, said in a statement.
According to Reuters, Meta could face civil penalties of $1,000 to $50,000 for each violation of various state laws. Considering that millions of young children and teenagers use Instagram, Meta is effectively facing a lawsuit that may run into billions of dollars.
Responding to the lawsuit, Meta spokesperson Liza Crenshaw said, “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.”