A bipartisan group of 33 attorneys general is suing Meta over addictive features aimed at children and teens, according to a complaint filed Tuesday in federal court in California. The support of so many attorneys general from different political backgrounds indicates a significant legal challenge to Meta’s activities.
The lawsuit represents the company’s latest legal challenge and is another demonstration of the bipartisan priority the state’s law enforcement agencies have placed on protecting children and teens from online dangers.
This is also not the first time that a broad coalition of state AGs have joined together to take on Meta. In 2020, 48 states and territories sued the company on antitrust grounds, alongside a separate Federal Trade Commission complaint.
A Meta spokesperson said in an emailed statement: “We share the attorneys general’s commitment to providing teens with safe and positive online experiences, and have already introduced more than 30 tools to support teens and their families. We are disappointed that instead of working productively with industry companies to create clear, age-appropriate standards for the many apps used by teens, the attorneys general have chosen this path.
Meta designed its Facebook and Instagram products to keep younger users there longer and return regularly, the attorneys general say. According to the federal complaint, Meta did this through the design of its algorithms, numerous alerts, notifications and so-called infinite scrolling of the platform’s feeds. The company also includes features that the attorneys general say negatively impact teens’ mental health due to social comparisons or promotion of body dysmorphia, such as “likes” or photo filters.
The federal lawsuit also accuses Meta of violating Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) by collecting personal data from users under the age of 13 without parental consent.
States are seeking to end what they view as Meta’s harmful practices, as well as impose sanctions and restitution.
Meta was well aware of the negative effects its design could have on its young users, the attorneys general say.
Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, caused an uproar among lawmakers and parents in 2021 after leaking internal company documents revealing internal research into its products. A body of literature on Instagram’s impact on teens found that “thirty-two percent of teenage girls said that when they felt bad about their body, Instagram made them feel worse,” reported the Wall Street Journal before Haugen revealed his identity. Following the report, Instagram said it was working on ways to prevent users from dwelling on negative topics.
Several of the practices that the attorneys general are focusing on for Meta are similar to those carried out by other social media companies, such as designing algorithms to keep users engaged.
States that have filed suit include California, Colorado, Louisiana, Nebraska, New York, South Carolina, Washington and Wisconsin.