33 AGs sue Meta for 'exploitative and harmful acts' against American children

Cracks down on the so-called four-pronged process of luring the youth

Mark Zuckerberg's Meta is facing another multi-state lawsuit, this time from 33 attorneys general who say the site knowingly - and by design - harms the mental wellbeing of children and teenagers. 

We'd argue it harms the mental wellbeing of adults too, but let's take what we can get.

According to the massive 233-page lawsuit [PDF], Meta has for years practiced a four-pronged approach to lure children and teenagers into spending more time on the platform, ignoring "the sweeping damage [Facebook and Instagram] have caused to the mental and physical health of our nation's youth." 

The AGs argue that Meta's four-part scheme:

  • Have a business model that focused on maximizing user attention,
  • Deployed harmful and psychologically manipulative product features" to make said model profitable while lying about its safety for young users,
  • Partially redacted but includes "while routinely publishing misleading reports boasting a deceptively low incidence of user harms,"
  • Refused to abandon its use of "known harmful features," instead doubling down on efforts to conceal their harm.

Among the harmful features of Facebook and Instagram singled out in the lawsuit are "dopamine-manipulating" recommendation algorithms, social comparison features, likes, audiovisual and haptic alerts, visual filters "known to promote young users' body dysmorphia," and infinite scrolling, which the AGs allege discourages young users' "attempts to self-regulate and disengage with Meta's platforms." 

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen brought similar allegations to light when she leaked internal reports and documents to the press in 2021. Facebook's former lead product manager on its civic misinformation team said that the social network failed to respond to violent content on its sites, lied about growth numbers, and actively tried to woo pre-teen users to the site. Today's filing mentions leaked internal reports that brought child harm concerns to light, but doesn't mention the source of the information. 

In addition to 53 charges of deceptive and unlawful business practices in the states involved the case, the lawsuit levels a federal charge for violating the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) by collecting and storing the personal data of young users without first getting their parents' permission. 

"Our bipartisan investigation has arrived at a solemn conclusion: Meta has been harming our children and teens, cultivating addiction to boost corporate profits," said California AG Rob Bonita, co-lead on the case.

"With today's lawsuit, we are drawing the line. We must protect our children and we will not back down from this fight. I am grateful for the collaboration of my fellow state attorneys general in standing up for our children and holding Meta accountable."

According to the Washington Post, AGs from Washington, D.C. and eight other states are filing separate, but related, complaints in local jurisdictions and federal district courts as well, bringing the total number of plaintiffs it's facing over claims of harm to children to 42.

Meta didn't respond to our questions about the case, but a spokesperson did tell the WaPo that it was "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."

Harming kids is serious Zucking problem

While its "disappointed" states have taken the legal path to a solution, this is hardly the first time Meta has been told its platforms potentially harm kids. 

The US Surgeon General issued a report in May concluding that social media presented mental health risks to young people, for many of the same reasons alluded to in this latest lawsuit. Harmful content "spread through direct pushes, unwanted content exchanges, and algorithmic designs" is "easily and widely accessible by children and adolescents," the USSG said. 

Meta has also been facing a flurry of lawsuits in a growing number of school districts alleging it (along with Google and other big tech firms) harm children for the sake of making more money by promoting harmful content. Hundreds of schools have signed on to a class-action lawsuit [PDF] that alleges American children "are suffering from an unprecedented mental health crisis fueled by [Meta, YouTube, SnapChat and TikTok]'s addictive and dangerous social media products." 

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 20 percent of American youth have seriously considered suicide, while the actual suicide rate among people age 10 to 24 rose from 6.8 to 10.7 per 100,000 between 2000 and 2018. According to the Center for Disease Control, however, firearms remain the leading cause of death for US children.

"Suicide rates for youth are up an alarming 57 percent. Emergency room visits for anxiety disorders are up 117 percent. In the decade leading up to 2020, there was a 40 percent increase in high school students reporting persistent sadness and hopelessness, and a 36 percent increase in those who attempted to take their own lives," the class-action suit claims 

Meta was separately hit with eight lawsuits across the US in 2022 alleging much of the same - that its design was destructively and intentionally addictive.

Whether this latest round of lawsuits will stick is unclear. Meta was sued by the FTC and multiple states on antitrust grounds in 2020, but the cases were tossed out on the grounds that regulators and AGs failed to prove Meta was guilty of market abuse. The FTC took the case back to court with an amended complaint in 2021, and though the judge hearing it dismissed some of the agency's claims, he let others stand. The case is still pending. 

Another FTC case filed against Meta in May this year alleged it had failed to fully comply with a 2020 agreement made between the pair that would better protect user privacy. Among the claims in that case were violations of COPPA similar to those alleged in the AG lawsuit filed today.

The case filed against Meta today is 23-CV-05448, The People of the State of California v. Meta Platforms, Inc. et al in the US District Court for the Northern District of California. ®

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