US states sue Meta claiming social platforms harming children’s mental health

Dozens of US states are suing Meta for harming young people and contributing to the youth mental health crisis by knowingly designing features on Instagram and Facebook that addict children to its platforms.

The lawsuit filed in federal court in California also claims that Meta routinely collects data on children under 13 without their parents’ consent, in violation of federal law.

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

“Its motive is profit, and in seeking to maximise its financial gains, Meta has repeatedly misled the public about the substantial dangers of its social media platforms.

“It has concealed the ways in which these platforms exploit and manipulate its most vulnerable consumers: teenagers and children.”

In addition to this lawsuit’s 33 states – including California and New York – nine other attorneys general are filing in their respective states, bringing the total number of states taking action to 42.

“Kids and teenagers are suffering from record levels of poor mental health and social media companies like Meta are to blame,” said New York attorney general Letitia James in a statement.

“Meta has profited from children’s pain by intentionally designing its platforms with manipulative features that make children addicted to their platforms while lowering their self-esteem.”

In a statement, Meta said it shares “the attorneys general’s commitment to providing teens with safe, positive experiences online, and have already introduced over 30 tools to support teens and their families”.

“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,” the company added.

Letitia James
Letitia James (Stefan Jeremiah/AP)

The broad-ranging suit 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 by the Wall Street Journal in 2021, based on Meta’s own research that found that the company knew about the harms Instagram can cause teenagers — especially girls — when it comes to mental health and body image issues.

One internal study cited 13.5% of teenage girls saying Instagram makes thoughts of suicide worse and 17% of teenage girls saying it makes eating disorders worse.

After the first reports, a consortium of news organisations, including the Associated Press, published their own findings based on leaked documents from whistleblower Frances Haugen, who has testified before Congress and a British parliamentary committee about what she found.

The use of social media among teenagers is nearly universal in the US and many other parts of the world. Up to 95% of children aged 13 to 17 in the US report using a social media platform, with more than a third saying they use social media “almost constantly”, according to the Pew Research Centre.

To comply with federal regulation, social media companies ban children under 13 from signing up to their platforms — but youngsters have been shown to easily get around the bans, with and without their parents’ consent, and many younger children have social media accounts.

Other measures social platforms have taken to address concerns about children’s mental health are also easily circumvented. For instance, TikTok recently introduced a default 60-minute time limit for users under 18, but once the limit is reached, minors can simply enter a passcode to keep watching.

In May, US surgeon general Dr Vivek Murthy called on tech companies, parents and caregivers to take “immediate action to protect kids now” from the harms of social media.

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