42 States Sue Meta Alleging Social Media Platforms Are Addictive and Aimed at Children

On Tuesday, October 24, 2023, 42 attorneys general filed a lawsuit against Meta in the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, alleging that Facebook and Instagram are designed to exploit and manipulate youth and teens in harmful ways.

The lawsuit contends that Meta “has profoundly altered the psychological and social realities of a generation of young Americans” in four ways: (1) “Meta created a business model focused on maximizing young users’ time and attention spent on [Facebook and Instagram];” (2) “Meta designed and deployed harmful and psychologically manipulative product features to induce young users’ compulsive and extended Platform use, while falsely assuring the public that its features were safe and suitable for young users;” (3) Meta routinely published misleading reports boasting a deceptively low incident of user harms;” and (4) Meta “has. . . redoubled its efforts to misrepresent, conceal, and downplay the impact of [known harmful] features on young users’ mental and physical health.”

As to the first contention, the complaint alleges that Meta targets young users in order to increase the time that young users spend on its social media platforms. “The more time young users spend on Instagram and Facebook, the more Meta earns by selling advertising targeted to those users.” As to the second contention, the complaint alleges that Meta chose to exploit forms of manipulation through targeted features such as recommendation algorithms, likes and social comparison features, alerts recalling users back to its platforms, visual filter features promoting body dysmorphia, and content-presentation formats discouraging self-regulation and disengagement.

As to the third contention, the complaint argues that “Meta has endeavored to persuade its users and the broader public that its Social Media Platforms are safe and suitable for young users.” To do so, the complaint states that Meta publishes quarterly Community Standard Enforcement Reports which claim a very low rate of community standards violations. The complaint argues that Meta affirmatively misrepresents facts through these reports, and it does so in order to “minimize the public’s awareness of the harmful experiences that are widespread on Instagram and Facebook – particularly for young users.”

As to the fourth contention, the complaint highlights multiple studies tracking mental health issues in youth before and after the rise in popularity of Meta’s social media platforms. The complaint argues that “Meta is not only fully aware that the worsening youth mental health crisis is fueled by social media platforms, but has long known that its Platforms are directly contributing to this crisis.” Further, “Meta takes great effort to distance itself from the reality that Meta’s Platforms are harmful for teen mental health.”

The complaint also alleges that Meta does not comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of 1998, which requires that Meta obtain verifiable parental consent for Instagram and Facebook users under the age of 13. The complaint contends that Meta “possesses actual knowledge of children on Instagram and collects their personal information without obtaining parental consent,” and that “Meta has actual knowledge of users under age 13 on Facebook.” In both cases, the complaint states that Meta “does not obtain verifiable parental consent before collecting personal information from users under age 13.”

The complaint makes claims for relief in the form of COPPA violations by Meta and violations of multiple state consumer fraud acts and fair business practices acts. The complaint seeks relief in the form of (1) a permanent injunction to stop ongoing and future violations of COPPA; (2) other orders to enforce Meta’s compliance with COPPA; (3) an award of damages, restitution, and other compensation to the filing states; (4) other and additional relief deemed just and proper; and (5) specific relief pursuant to each filing state’s laws.

Meta was previously sued by 48 attorneys general in 2020 on antitrust grounds, in addition to being sued by the Federal Trade Commission.

Additional Reading

Meta sued by 42 attorneys general alleging Facebook, Instagram features are addictive and target kids, MSNBC (October 24, 2023)

The People of the State of California v. Meta Platforms, Inc. et al (Case No. 4:2023cv05448)

Complaint in The People of the State of California v. Meta Platforms, Inc. et al

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