Ohio among 33 states suing Meta, claiming harm to teens from Instagram and Facebook

Ohio is among 33 states that filed a federal lawsuit against Meta Platforms, Inc. with the claim that its social media platforms including Instagram and Facebook have harmed young users’ mental health to boost profits.

The lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California argues that Meta is covering up psychological and physical harm caused by their platforms and knowingly designed features on Instagram and Facebook that addict children to its platforms, Yost said Tuesday..

The attorneys general also “allege that the platforms served harmful content — including material associated with eating disorders, violence, negative self-perception, body-image issues and bullying — to young users.”

Social media usage among teens is nearly universal in the U.S. and many other parts of the world with up to 95% of youth ages 13 to 17 in the U.S. reporting using a social media platform and more than a third saying they use social media “almost constantly,” according to the Pew Research Center.

The federal lawsuit also argues that Meta violated state consumer protection laws by assuring the public that the platforms are safe and suitable for young users. The company’s practices harm the mental and physical health of teenagers and pre-teens, with the U.S. Surgeon General calling it a “youth mental health crisis,” that has led to suicide, Yost said.

The complaint also alleges that Meta violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act when the company, aware that users younger than 13 were actively on its platforms, collected data from those users without parental consent. Meta targeted these youngest users after identifying them as a “valuable, but untapped” base, as reported in a 2021 Wall Street Journal article, Yost added.

The lawsuit said the platforms’ algorithms push users into descending “rabbit holes,” with the objective of keeping users on the platform for long periods along with allegedly used features such as infinite scroll and near-constant alerts in a concerted effort to hold young users’ attention.

Instead of disclosing the harm and making meaningful changes, Meta utilized tactics to keep teens and tweens returning to the social media platforms, all while publicly advertised their platforms as safe for young users, Yost said.

“Given that children when they’re on these platforms become vulnerable to cyberbullying and online predators, Meta has added insult to injury, further injuring our children,” he said. “I trust that the parents within Meta itself might reconsider these practices, but until then, initiating lawsuits should compel the company to change its ways.”

While some information is still confidential, some publicly available sources involve disclosures from former Meta employees explaining how the company deliberately sought to gain financially by addicting teens and tweens to its platforms.

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.

Other measures social platforms have taken to address concerns about children’s mental health are also easily circumvented. For instance, TikTok recently introduced a default 60-minute time limit for users under 18. But once the limit is reached, minors can simply enter a passcode to keep watching.

The lawsuit seeks injunctive and monetary relief caused by Meta’s platforms.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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