Meta Faces Lawsuit From 41 States Alleging Harm to Young Users

A sprawling lawsuit alleging Meta intentionally designed Instagram and Facebook with features it knew were harmful to younger users.

(Photo by Anthony Quintano under CC BY 2.0)

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The attorney generals of 41 states and the District of Columbia just unfriended Mark Zuckerberg.

On Tuesday, Meta was slapped with a sprawling lawsuit alleging it intentionally designed Instagram and Facebook with features it knew were harmful to younger users, among other claims. Central to the plaintiffs’ case: evidence buried in the “Facebook Files,” the treasure trove of internal company documents leaked in October 2021.

Addiction Affliction

The suit’s allegations include that “Meta prioritizes maximizing engagement over young users’ safety,” that its recommendation algorithms “encourage compulsive use,” that disruptive design features interfere with “young users’ education and sleep,” and, chiefly, that “Meta knows its Platform features are addictive and harmful.” Meta’s own internal research, leaked in the Facebook Files, concluded that its platforms do present mental health risks to a significant minority of young users — with nearly one-third of teenage girls admitting that Instagram warped their perception of their bodies.

Still, the science is murky when it comes to social media addiction — and academic researchers have long struggled to prove actual addictive tendencies with such platforms. Proving harm has been a scattershot legal strategy, though last year a British judge ruled that content promoted by Meta platforms played a “more than minimal” role in a teenager’s suicide.

The US lawsuit also includes allegations that might be easier to prove than causing harm:

  • A second claim alleges Meta violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), by collecting personal data of users under the age of 13 without parental consent.
  • Both Meta policies and federal law prohibit users under 13 from even using the platforms without parental consent. But the lawsuit alleges, “Meta has marketed and directed its Social Media Platforms to children under the age of 13 and has actual knowledge that those children use its Platforms.”

Age Gate-Gate: Central to the COPPA violation claims is the easily manipulated “enter your date of birth” prompt that any modestly tech-savvy kid can manipulate to create an account on Instagram or Facebook. Other evidence includes a 2018 “guide” for parents that warns keeping kids off social media risks “social marginalization,” and that Meta permits advertising on its platforms either featuring or directed toward children. You’d think Meta would know better than anyone: The digital footprint you leave behind can and will be used against you.