Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul on Tuesday joined a bipartisan coalition of attorneys general in dozens of states in a lawsuit alleging that addictive features deployed by social media company Meta Platforms Inc. harm young people’s mental health and have contributed to the nation’s youth mental health crisis.
The lawsuit, filed in California federal court and joined by attorneys general in 33 states, also claims Meta, which operates popular social media platforms Facebook and Instagram, has violated federal law by routinely collecting data on children under the age of 13 without their parents’ consent. Nine other attorneys general have filed similar lawsuits in their respective states.
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“We must keep our kids safe — and that includes from dangers online,” Kaul said in a statement. “Adequate protections should be in place to protect kids from harms associated with social media, and parents must receive accurate information about potential dangers to their kids.”
The complaint states that, through Meta’s business practices, the company has “profoundly altered the psychological and social realities of a generation of young Americans.”
“Meta has harnessed powerful and unprecedented technologies to entice, engage, and ultimately ensnare youth and teens,” the complaint continues. “Its motive is profit, and in seeking to maximize 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.”
The lawsuit asserts that Meta’s business practices violate state consumer protection laws and the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.
“It doesn’t matter whether your child uses Facebook, Instagram, or another social media platform,” state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary Randy Romanski said in a statement. “Companies should not be allowed to misrepresent their products and their impact, or use tactics to manipulate youth and their parents into using those products.”
“Each deceptive act or practice alleged herein, constitutes a separate violation of the Wisconsin Deceptive Trade Practices Act,” according to the complaint. “By engaging in the acts and practices alleged herein, Meta engaged in deceptive acts or practices declared unlawful under (state statute).”
Meta’s algorithms, along with an infinite scroll function and alerts, push users into “rabbit holes” in an effort to maximize engagement, according to Kaul’s office. The complaint goes on to assert the company knew the addictive features harmed young people’s physical and mental health but did not disclose the harm or make meaningful efforts to minimize it.
“We share 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,” Meta spokesperson Liza Crenshaw said in a statement. “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.”
Officials with Meta have pointed to dozens of features designed by the company, including age verification technology, in-app resources and other changes, that have been implemented to support young users and parents.
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 the fall of 2021, based on the Meta’s own research that found that the company knew about the harms Instagram can cause teenagers — especially teen girls — when it comes to mental health and body image issues. One internal study cited 13.5% of teen girls saying Instagram makes thoughts of suicide worse and 17% of teen girls saying it makes eating disorders worse.
The use of social media among teens is nearly universal in the U.S. and many other parts of the world. Up to 95% of youth ages 13 to 17 in the U.S. report using a social media platform, with more than a third saying they use social media “almost constantly,” according to the Pew Research Center.
To comply with federal regulation, social media companies ban kids under 13 from signing up to their platforms — but children have been shown to easily get around the bans, both with and without their parents’ consent, and many younger kids have social media accounts.
In May, U.S. 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.
The multistate coalition also is investigating social media company TikTok for similar concerns. That investigation remains ongoing.
In Wisconsin, lawmakers earlier this year introduced legislation that would, among other measures, require parents to give consent for children and teenagers to access social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram.
The proposal would prohibit anyone younger than 18 from using social media between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., require parental consent for minors to create a social media account and allow parents full access to a child’s account.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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