WA and 40 other states sue Meta, alleging Instagram and Facebook harm kids

Attorney General Bob Ferguson

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is joining a bipartisan multi-state lawsuit against Facebook and Instagram’s parent company Meta, alleging the tech giant has knowingly included features in its social media apps that are harmful to children’s health.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, argues that Meta has not only targeted young social media users, but also developed “psychologically manipulative” features to keep them hooked on its apps.

Further, the lawsuit alleges the company has published misleading reports about the hazards of social media use for children and that Meta has flouted laws restricting the collection of data from its youngest users.

Democratic and Republican attorneys general from 32 other states are part of the suit, which Ferguson called one of the “most robust multi-state efforts our office has ever seen or been a part of.” Eight other states and the District of Columbia are filing separate complaints in local, state and federal courts.

“Parents are doing their best to protect their kids,” Ferguson said at a press conference on Tuesday. “But they are up against a sophisticated social media giant that is exploiting its most addictive features for profit.”

“The onus cannot be entirely on parents,” he added.

Ferguson said the suit is the result of a 2021 investigation by attorneys general across the country into the harms of Meta’s social media platforms.

The 233-page legal complaint argues that Meta’s conduct “constitutes unfair or deceptive acts or practices in violation of the Washington Consumer Protection Act.”

States will seek financial penalties under state and federal consumer protection laws. The suit also asks the court to block Meta from using social media features that the states say harm children and teenagers, like “infinite scroll,” which the original developer once likened to “behavioral cocaine.” 

In a statement, Meta said it has already introduced “over 30 tools to support teens and their families,” pointing to features like age verification, parental supervision and prompts on its platforms that remind teenagers to take a break from social media.

“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,” the statement said.

The American Psychological Association has said using social media is not “inherently beneficial or harmful to young people,” and there is research that suggests social media can be positive for a young person’s mental health.

But a 2019 study of U.S. teens found that those who spent more than three hours a day using social media may be at heightened risk for mental health problems. The lawsuit points to evidence that excessive social media use can disrupt sleep and interfere with education.

Ferguson said the case was about changes Meta can make to allow young people to enjoy the positive parts of social media without experiencing the negatives.

At the press conference, he was joined by young social media users who said they and their friends are aware of the negative effects of social media but are unable to put down their phones.

“The promise of gaining connection with peers always seems to be more important,” said 19-year-old Isabella Flood Wallin.

The lawsuits highlight growing concerns among policymakers of the potential harms of social media. In May, the Federal Trade Commission called for a blanket ban on Meta monetizing data from users under age 18. The U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory in June warning the public about the risk social media poses to children and teenagers’ mental health.

But efforts at the federal level to rein in social media companies have largely stalled, leaving states to enact a patchwork of regulations.

Local groups and private citizens have also sued Meta and other social media companies over claims they’re harming children. In January, Seattle Public Schools — later joined by Kent School District — filed a complaint against several social media companies, including Meta.

— By Grace Deng, Washington State Standard

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

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