The attorneys general of dozens of US states are suing Instagram and its parent company Meta over their impact on young users, accusing them of contributing to a youth mental health crisis through the addictive nature of their social media platforms.
Filed in federal court in Oakland, California, on Tuesday, the lawsuit claims Meta, which also operates Facebook, has repeatedly misled the public about the substantial 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,” said the complaint, filed by 33 states including California and Illinois. “Its motive is profit.”
The suit alleges that Meta strives to ensure that young people spend as much time as possible on social media despite knowing that teenage brains are susceptible to the need for approval in the form of likes from other users about their content. Meta deceptively denied publicly that its social media were harmful, the lawsuit said. Nine other states are expected to file similar lawsuits on Tuesday, bringing the total number of states suing to 42.
The lawsuit seeks a variety of remedies, including substantial civil penalties. It is the latest action to target social media firms, which in recent years have been under fire for the vast power they have acquired with what critics say is anemic federal oversight.
Carl Tobias, chair of the University of Richmond School of Law, said: “The main argument is that Meta deploys the entity’s user information to secure young users’ maximum engagement, even while Meta gathers internal research on the possible injuries that the company’s products inflict.”
Public attention on social media’s effect on children’s mental health reached a high point in 2021 when Frances Haugen, a former employee turned whistleblower, released internal documents that showed Instagram worsened body image issues for some teen girls and that the company knew it. The revelations, which are mentioned in the lawsuit, led to a congressional hearing about the impact of social media on young people.
In his State of the Union address in February, Joe Biden addressed the negative mental-health effects of social media on young users and urged Congress to pass bipartisan legislation to address the problem. In May, the US surgeon general issued a formal advisory on the same issue.
Meta and other social media companies already face hundreds of lawsuits brought on behalf of children and school districts raising similar claims.
Early this year, lawyers representing more than 100 families filed a master complaint accusing social media firms including Meta, Snapchat, Google and TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, of harming young people with their products. That case is ongoing. In a joint statement, the attorneys from that case applauded the move from US attorneys general.
“This significant step underscores the undeniable urgency of addressing the impact of addictive and harmful social media platforms, a matter of paramount concern nationwide, as it continues to contribute to a pervasive mental health crisis among American youth,” they said.
Meta said in a statement that it seeks to make teens safe online.
“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,” a spokesperson said.