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Forty States Now Suing Meta Over Social Media Harm to Kids

Washington announced this week it has joined dozens of other states to sue Meta, parent company of Facebook and Instagram, accusing the social media giant of fueling a nationwide youth mental health crisis.

The Meta logo on a smartphone in front of the Facebook logo.
(TNS) — Depression. Anxiety. Eating disorders. Disrupted sleep. Low self-esteem.

These are a few of the many ways social media hurts children, a new federal lawsuit alleges.

The state of Washington announced this week it has joined dozens of other states to sue Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, accusing the social media giant of fueling a nationwide youth mental health crisis by engineering products to be addictive for children.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, alleges Meta concealed the ways its social media platforms "manipulate and exploit" children and teens to get them hooked to the apps.

Attorneys general across party lines from 32 other states are also part of the federal suit. Separately, eight more states and the District of Columbia announced Tuesday they are filing similar lawsuits.

"Meta has harnessed powerful and unprecedented technologies to entice, engage, and ultimately ensnare youth and teens," the 32 states wrote in their 233-page legal complaint. "Its motive is profit."

The suit is only the latest in a movement to hold the tech supergiant accountable, including at a high-profile Congressional hearing with an ex-employee whistleblower in 2021.

During a news conference Tuesday, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said the multistate investigation into Meta was years in the making and is one of the "most robust" investigations his office has faced.

Meta wrote in a statement Tuesday that it is committed to providing teens with "safe, positive experiences online," and has "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," a Meta spokesperson wrote.

'Behavioral cocaine'

Olivia Hilton, a junior at The Community School in Spokane, said she first got access to social media at 13 years old. Her mental health declined in the months that followed.

Hilton struggled with an eating disorder as a freshman in high school, and she says social media was largely to blame.

"There was just a lot of pictures of really, really skinny people on my Instagram that I would scroll past every single day, and it was just sort of, like, ingrained into my brain after a while," Hilton said.

Hilton was spending as much as 11 hours each day on social media platforms. Along with her physical health, her grades also declined.

"I was staying up till 2 a.m. on social media every night," she said. "I will forever regret not being able to do well in freshman year, because my GPA really struggled because of it."

Hilton is in a better place now. But it was very difficult to get there.

"I uninstalled a lot of social medias," she said. "And I went to treatment for, like, seven months."

Hilton is not alone in her struggles. In the United States, 22 million teens log into Instagram every day, the federal lawsuit says.

Children between the ages of 12 and 15 who spend more than three hours a day on social media may be at a heightened risk for mental health problems, a 2019 study found.

The "scrolling" feature Hilton spoke of is one of the features the legal complaint says is dangerous on social media platforms. The "infinite scroll" is a content presentation format engineered to induce dopamine, the suit alleges, and prevent young users from self-regulating — or shutting off social media platforms.

The original developer of the "infinite scroll" concept once likened the feature to "behavioral cocaine."

"Not only did Meta know the risk these features pose to children and teens," Ferguson said Tuesday, "the company's own research demonstrated the potential for psychological and physical harm."

The lawsuit also alleges that visual filter effects featured on Meta platforms are known to promote body dysmorphia , a mental health condition where one cannot stop thinking about perceived flaws in their appearance.

The legal complaint accused Meta of violating the Washington Consumer Protection Act, along with the Federal Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. Meta marketed its platforms to users under the age of 13, the suit says, and unlawfully and knowingly collected their personal data without obtaining parental permission in accordance with the law.

Ferguson compared Meta to big tobacco corporations in its decision to "maximize profits at the expense of the wellbeing of users." The state attorney general also said that the onus of protecting children from the harms of social media should not be placed on their parents.

On Tuesday, Ferguson was joined on stage by two young Washington residents who said they grew up using Instagram.

"I would go on my phone intending to do other things, and then instinctively start opening up Instagram without even meaning to and then getting stuck in the cycle of scrolling, seeing other people's lives and interactions that weren't actually reflective of what a lot of times they are actually feeling or currently doing," said 19-year-old Isabella Flood Wallin.

Flood Wallin added she and her peers have engaged in multiple conversations about the harms posed by social media platforms like Instagram, but the platforms' prevalence in the social lives of young people makes it hard to stop logging in. Flood Wallin has tried multiple methods to limit her screen time on Instagram, she said, but those attempts have been futile.

"The promise of gaining connection with my peers always seems to be more important," she said.

Washington and the other states are asking the court to stop Meta from using the "addictive" social media tools that the lawsuit says harm children and teens, including creating a different user experience for young people.

"Meta has been aware of our investigation and our concerns for some time," Ferguson said. "But clearly we would not be here today if Meta had expressed a willingness to make changes that would make Instagram and Facebook safer for kids."

Reporter Roberta Simonson contributed to this article.

Ellen Dennis' work is funded in part by members of the Spokane community via the Community Journalism and Civic Engagement Fund. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper's managing editor.

Roberta Simonson's reporting is part of the Teen Journalism Institute, funded by Bank of America with support from the Innovia Foundation.

© 2023 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.