Saturday, May 25

Meta Sued Over Features That Hook Children to Instagram, Facebook

Meta was sued by more than three dozen states on Tuesday for knowingly using features on Instagram and Facebook to hook children to its platforms, even as the company said its social media sites were safe for young people.

Colorado and California led a joint lawsuit filed by 33 states in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, saying Meta — which owns Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger — violated consumer protection laws by unfairly ensnaring children and deceiving users about the safety of its platforms. The District of Columbia and eight other states filed separate lawsuits on Tuesday against Meta with most of the same claims.

In their complaint, the states said Meta had “designed psychologically manipulative product features to induce young users’ compulsive and extended use” of platforms like Instagram. The company’s algorithms were designed to push children and teenagers into rabbit holes of toxic and harmful content, the states said, with features like “infinite scroll” and persistent alerts used to hook young users. The attorneys general also charged Meta with violating a federal children’s online privacy law, accusing it of unlawfully collecting “the personal data of its youngest users” without their parents’ permission.

“Meta has harnessed powerful and unprecedented technologies to entice, engage, and ultimately ensnare youth and teens,” the states said in their 233-page lawsuit. “Its motive is profit.”

Meta said it was working to provide a safer environment for teenagers on its apps and has introduced more than 30 tools to support teenagers and 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.

It’s unusual for so many states to come together to sue a tech giant for consumer harms. The coordination shows states are prioritizing the issue of children and online safety and combining legal resources to fight Meta, just as states had previously done for cases against Big Tobacco and Big Pharma companies.

“Just like Big Tobacco and vaping companies have done in years past, Meta chose to maximize its profits at the expense of public health, specifically harming the health of the youngest among us,” Phil Weiser, Colorado’s attorney general, said in a statement.

Lawmakers around the globe have been trying to rein in platforms like Instagram and TikTok on behalf of children. Over the past few years, Britain, followed by states like California and Utah, passed laws to require social media platforms to boost privacy and safety protections for minors online. The Utah law, among other things, would require social media apps to turn off notifications by default for minors overnight to reduce interruptions to children’s sleep.

Regulators have also tried to hold social media companies accountable for possible harms to young people. Last year, a coroner in Britain ruled that Instagram had contributed to the death of a teenager who took her own life after seeing thousands of images of self-harm on the platform.

Laws to protect the safety of children online in the United States, however, have stalled in Congress as tech companies lobby against them.

“We’ve been warning about Meta’s manipulation and harming of young people from its start and sadly it has taken years to hold it and other companies like Google accountable,” said Jeffrey Chester, the executive director of consumer advocacy at the Center for Digital Democracy. “Hopefully justice will be served but this is why it’s so crucial to have regulations.”