41 states sue Meta alleging that Instagram and Facebook is harmful, addictive for kids

More than 40 states have filed suit in federal court against Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, claiming that the social media company has harmed young people’s mental health – addicting them while misleading the public about the platforms' safety.

In the lawsuit filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, the states say the company has profited from how it has designed Instagram and Facebook to maximize time spent on the platforms by teens and children, which led to increased advertising revenue.

The sites' algorithms dispense dopamine, the lawsuit claims, describing it as "the pleasure chemical" in a manner that induces young users to "engage repeatedly with its Platforms – much like a gambler at a slot machine."

The suit cites several studies including Meta’s own research showing links between young people's use of Instagram and Facebook with depression, anxiety and other health problems.

A two-year multistate investigation led to the lawsuit, the officials said. Some of this information was brought to light by whistleblower Frances Haugen's leaking of documents to The Wall Street Journal, which led to a series of stories in the outlet and to a Senate hearing.

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'National youth mental health crisis'

Meta's designs "deliberately exploited young people's still developing brains and adolescent vulnerabilities" with features such as the “infinite scroll,” near-constant notifications and alerts, autoplay Stories and Reels, all engineered to instill a fear of missing out (FOMO) and a "slot-machine-type tactic called intermittent variable rewards to keep young people addicted to their app," said Andrea Joy Campbell, attorney general of Massachusetts, which is one of eight states, plus the District of Columbia, that filed suits similar to the federal filing in state and local courts.

Kids and teens' inability to regulate their own use has led to "significant and concerning negative impacts on the brain development and mental health of teen users," the suits allege. For instance, the percentage of high school girls who have seriously considered suicide had grown to 30% in 2021, the suits note; 10 years earlier, when Instagram launched, that rate was 19%.

"Meta has preyed on an entire generation of young people for profit," Campbell said in a news conference with other attorneys general.

Facebook and Instagram increase engagement by "periodically presenting" young users with "psychologically and emotionally gripping content, including content related to eating disorders, violent content, content encouraging negative self-perception and body image issues, bullying content, and other categories of content known by Meta to provoke intense reactions from users," the suit charges.

"It is very clear the decisions made by social media platforms like Meta are part of what is driving mental health harms, physical health harms and threats that we can't ignore. We have a youth mental health crisis in the United States of America," Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said in a news conference Tuesday. "The young people were being brought down rabbit holes."

In a statement, Meta said it shares the “commitment to providing teens with safe, positive experiences online, and have already introduced over 30 tools to support teens and their families.”

“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 company said.

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Which states are filing the lawsuit against Meta?

In addition to Colorado and New York, the other states with attorneys general joining the suit are Arizona, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Nine state attorneys general in Florida, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont and the District of Columbia have filed similar lawsuits in their states.

In all, 41 states and the District of Columbia have filed suit against Meta on the issue; another state, Arkansas, in March filed suit against Meta over the addictive nature of Facebook and Instagram.

The state also filed separate suits against TikTok and its parent company ByteDance for misleading the public about having adult content that teens could access. "I was the first attorney general in the country to file a lawsuit against Meta for its deceptive trade practices," Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin said in a statement to USA TODAY. "I am pleased to see this coalition of states follow Arkansas's lead in holding Meta accountable."

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What are the claims being made against Meta in the lawsuit?

Meta designed Facebook and Instagram with "manipulative and harmful features" to keep young users on the apps, the lawsuits say. And the officials charge that Meta's own research found that teens know Instagram – with posts that often lead to comparing oneself to others, and its likes and follower counts – leads to increased anxiety and depression, but they feel compelled to stay on the app from "fear of missing out on cultural and social trends."

Similar affects were found among college students when Facebook emerged in 2004 to 2006, the suit says.

“Kids and teenagers are suffering from record levels of poor mental health and social media companies like Meta are to blame,” New York Attorney General James said in a statement. “Meta has profited from children’s pain by intentionally designing its platforms with manipulative features that make children addicted to their platforms while lowering their self-esteem. Social media companies, including Meta, have contributed to a national youth mental health crisis and they must be held accountable.”

The state AGs also say Meta continued to use a visual filter that promotes young users' body dysmorphia and leads to body image issues related to eating disorders.

This isn't the first time Meta has been criticized for potential harm to teens, especially teen girls, about body image. Last year, the parents of a 19-year-old girl sued the company saying their daughter became addicted to Instagram and developed an eating disorder and suicidal ideation.

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What is the goal of the lawsuit against Meta?

The lawsuit seeks to make Meta stop using harmful tactics with algorithms and to stop unlawfully collecting personal data from young users (those under 13), without parental consent, under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) – as well as prevent allowing those under 13 from joining the platform.

"We want this activity to stop using its misleading algorithms," Nebraska Attorney General Mike Hilgers said at a news conference. "We want to make sure it applies with the COPPA."

Added Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti: "This is not about money. This is about protecting kids. What we want is for the company to change its behavior."

Meta Multistate Complaint by Mike Snider

Contributing: The Associated Press

Follow Mike Snider on X and Threads: @mikesnider & mikegsnider.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lawsuit against Meta: States say Facebook, Instagram harms teens, kids