By Jonathan Stempel, Diane Bartz and Nate Raymond
(Reuters) – Dozens of U.S. states are suing Meta Platforms and its Instagram unit, accusing them of fueling a youth mental health crisis by making their social media platforms addictive.
In a complaint filed on Tuesday, the attorneys general of 33 states including California and New York said Meta, which also operates Facebook, repeatedly misled the public about the dangers of its platforms, and knowingly induced young children and teenagers into addictive and compulsive social media use.
“Meta has harnessed powerful and unprecedented technologies to entice, engage, and ultimately ensnare youth and teens,” according to the complaint filed in the Oakland, California federal court. “Its motive is profit.”
Children have long been an appealing demographic for businesses, which hope to attract them as consumers at ages when they may be more impressionable, and solidify brand loyalty.
For Meta, younger consumers may help secure more advertisers who hope children will keep buying their products as they grow up.
But the states said research has associated children’s use of Meta’s social media platforms with “depression, anxiety, insomnia, interference with education and daily life, and many other negative outcomes.”
Meta said it was “disappointed” in the lawsuit.
“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 said.
Eight other U.S. states and Washington, D.C. are filing similar lawsuits against Meta on Tuesday, bringing the total number of authorities taking action against the Menlo Park, California-based company to 42.
Meta shares fell 0.6% on the Nasdaq.
TIKTOK, YOUTUBE ALREADY FACE LAWSUITS
The cases are the latest in a string of legal actions against social media companies on behalf of children and teens.
Meta, ByteDance’s TikTok and Google’s YouTube already face hundreds of lawsuits filed on behalf of children and school districts about the addictiveness of social media.
Mark Zuckerberg, Meta’s chief executive, has defended in the past his company’s handling of content that some critics find harmful.
“At the heart of these accusations is this idea that we prioritize profit over safety and well-being. That’s just not true,” he posted in October 2021 on his Facebook page.
In Tuesday’s cases, Meta could face civil penalties of $1,000 to $50,000 for each violation of various state laws — an amount that could add up quickly given the millions of young children and teenagers who use Instagram.
Much of the focus on Meta stemmed from a whistleblower’s release of documents in 2021 that showed the company knew Instagram, which began as a photo-sharing app, was addictive and worsened body image issues for some teen girls.
The lawsuit by the 33 states alleged that Meta has strived to ensure that young people spend as much time as possible on social media despite knowing that they are susceptible to the need for approval in the form of “likes” from other users about their content.
“Meta has been harming our children and teens, cultivating addiction to boost corporate profits,” said California Attorney General Rob Bonta, whose state includes Meta’s headquarters.
‘THREATS THAT WE CAN’T IGNORE’
States also accused Meta of violating a law banning the collection of data of children under age 13, and deceptively denying that its social media was harmful.
“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.
Dopamine is a type of neurotransmitter that plays a role in feelings of pleasure.
According to the complaint, Meta’s refusal to accept responsibility extended last year to its distancing itself from a 14-year-old girl’s suicide in the UK, after she was exposed on Instagram to content about suicide and self-injury.
A coroner rejected a Meta executive’s claim that such content was “safe” for children, finding that the girl likely binged on harmful content that normalized the depression she had felt before killing herself.
States also alleged Meta is seeking to expand its harmful practices into virtual reality, including its Horizon Worlds platform and the WhatsApp and Messenger apps.
By suing, authorities are seeking to patch holes left by the U.S. Congress’ inability to pass new online protections for children despite years of discussions.
Colorado Attorney General Philip Weiser said the whistleblower’s revelations showed that Meta knew how Facebook and Instagram were harming children.
“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,” he said.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York, Diane Bartz and David Shepardson in Washington, D.C., and Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Chris Sanders, Rod Nickel and Lisa Shumaker)