Meta Sued By Dozens of States Over Alleged Harmful Youth Marketing

Meta Platforms Inc. was sued by California and a group of more than 30 states over claims that its social-media platforms Instagram and Facebook exploit youths for profit and feed them harmful content.

The suit, filed Tuesday in federal court in Oakland, California, adds to growing scrutiny of social media giants over how they serve their youngest users.

“Meta has harnessed powerful and unprecedented technologies to entice, engage, and ultimately ensnare youth and teens,” lawyers for the states said in the lawsuit. “Its motive is profit, and in seeking to maximize its financial gains, Meta has repeatedly misled the public about the substantial dangers of its social media platforms.”

Meta said it’s committed to keeping teens safe online and has introduced more than 30 tools to support youths 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 in a statement.

The idea that social media companies shoulder responsibility for the potential damage their products cause to young people came to the fore late in 2021 when former Meta employee Frances Haugen emerged as a whistleblower with documents about internal operations.

Among Haugen’s allegations was a claim that the company was knowingly preying on vulnerable young people to boost profits. Haugen revealed an internal study at Instagram which found evidence that many adolescent girls using the photo-sharing app were suffering from depression and anxiety around body-image issues. Haugen’s testimony to Congress is cited in Tuesday’s complaint.

Meta, along with Snap, TikTok, and Google, now face hundreds of lawsuits claiming they’re to blame for adolescents and young adults suffering anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and sleeplessness as a result of their addiction to social media. The companies also have been hit with scores of complaints by school districts on behalf of students alleging that the platforms have created a public nuisance.

The platforms have said they are offering more resources to support young users online and argued that the lawsuits improperly seek to regulate content.

The suit by the states contends that Meta continues to downplay the harmful effects of its social media platforms on young users, despite allegedly having conducted internal studies that revealed serious harm associated with prolonged use of the web pages by children and teenagers.

Facebook and Instagram require users under 13 to submit parental consent to create an account, but the states claim that Meta collects personal information about users under the age limit who haven’t provided the required permission. The company is accused of using marketing schemes to target those younger users, including publishing advertising campaigns featuring actors that appear to be children using its social media platforms.

The lawsuit also points to accounts hosted on both Facebook and Instagram that are child-oriented, including those for toys like Hot Wheels and Lego and television programs like PAW Patrol and Bluey.

The states are seeking a court order directing Meta to cease the practices at issue and imposing civil fines for each alleged violation of state and federal law. The case is assigned to US District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers, who is also presiding over the hundreds of personal injury and school district lawsuits from across the country that have been grouped together in Oakland.

The attorneys general announced at a virtual press conference Tuesday that in addition to the federal suit, eight states are pursuing cases in state court to enforce consumer protection laws.

Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti said the states are continuing to investigate other social media platforms, but decided to proceed with legal action against Meta as one of the biggest players in the industry.

“I think it is appropriate that we lead off with this particular lawsuit,” he said.

Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Campbell said the states “relied substantially” on the materials leaked by Haugen, in conjunction with information uncovered by state investigators.

Meta was sued in March by Arkansas over claims similar to those in the new multi-state complaint.

State lawmakers also are seeking to restrict how social media platforms target youths. New York is considering legislation that would require companies to get proactive permission to allow kids to use their platforms during overnight hours.

Utah’s first-in-the-nation measures require platforms such as Twitter and Instagram to verify the age of users and implement specific restrictions for minors under 18. California’s governor signed a bill this month that increases legal liability for social media companies that allow child abuse to fester on their platforms.

Meta is fighting a push by the US Federal Trade Commission to toughen the terms of the company’s $5 billion privacy settlement from 2020 — including by barring it from monetizing data of users under age 18. That would dent Meta’s North America advertising revenue.

The case is People of the State of California v. Meta Platforms Inc., 23-cv-05448, US District Court, Northern District of California (Oakland).

By Madlin Mekelburg

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