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AG Ferguson, bipartisan group of AGs file federal lawsuit accusing Meta of harming youth mental health

Coalition seeks to reform Facebook, Instagram features that were designed to addict adolescents

SEATTLE — Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced today that he is suing Meta, the parent company of the social media platforms Facebook and Instagram, as part of a bipartisan coalition of 42 attorneys general. The federal lawsuit accuses Meta of intentionally putting profits before the well-being of millions of its most vulnerable users.

Specifically, the lawsuit accuses Meta’s top leaders of knowingly targeting youth — calling them a “valuable, but untapped” market — with harmful features designed to get them hooked for life to maximize profits. Meta simultaneously and publicly downplayed the associated risks for those users, including disregarding its own research. These tactics contradicted the company’s public-facing claims that it puts user safety first.

The federal lawsuit also alleges that Meta knew young users, including those under 13, were active on the platforms and knowingly collected data from those users without parental consent.

The lawsuit, to be filed today in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, claims these unfair and deceptive practices violate state consumer protection laws, including here in Washington, and the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

The coalition aims to make Facebook and Instagram safer for millions of adolescent users, including hundreds of thousands of young Washingtonians.

“Meta is ignoring the risks that Facebook and Instagram posed to kids — and exploiting them for financial gain,” Ferguson said. “My office is committed to protecting the mental health of Washington youth.”

While much of the complaint relies on confidential material that has not yet been disclosed, publicly available information previously released — including by former Meta employees — shows the company profited by intentionally and successfully designing its products to be more addictive for young users.

Meta designed features to provide prolonged and repeated dopamine, or “feel-good,” responses that discourage users from leaving the apps once they open them, tapping into their “fear of missing out.” Some examples:

  • The “like” or reaction button;
  • Push notifications that ping the user repeatedly with sounds, vibrations (haptic) or other audiovisual alerts;
  • A scroll function that feeds a user endless content, known as “infinite scroll.”

These features are designed to incessantly monopolize young users’ time and attention. Developing brains are particularly susceptible to this manipulation. The original developer of the “infinite scroll” concept, Aza Raskin, noted to the BBC: “It’s as if they’re taking behavioral cocaine and just sprinkling it all over your interface” to keep users coming back and scrolling.

The lawsuit claims that Meta knew about the wide variety of harms these features could cause young users. Not only did Meta disregard and fail to mitigate the risks, the company exploited them. The coalition seeks to stop Meta from engaging in unlawful practices that deceive and harm youth, including fundamentally changing the user experience for all adolescent users.

Examples of potential changes to the social media platforms include, but are not limited to:

  • Altering or eliminating the “like” button, autoplay or other features that encourage addictive use;
  • Restricting the frequency of notifications and the manner with which they are delivered;
  • Eliminating “infinite scroll,” or placing limits on how much content youth see when they access their accounts;
  • Improved “age gating,” or strengthening controls for age requirements;
  • Stricter enforcement of multiple and fake accounts;
  • More generally, creating a separate type of account or feature set for any user under a specified age, restricting features most harmful to youth.

Rather than implement such safeguards, Meta has placed the burden on kids and their parents to self-regulate.

Background on investigation and public scrutiny of Meta

This lawsuit and others around the country are the result of a bipartisan, nationwide investigation by state attorneys general that began in 2021.

Other states joining the federal lawsuit include Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Additionally, the following states are filing lawsuits in their own state courts: the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah and Vermont. Florida is filing its own federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida.

Meta has been the subject of widespread and growing public scrutiny. Around the time the coalition started its investigation, a whistleblower at Meta revealed that the company was circulating extensive research internally regarding the risk of harm to its users, including youth. The company has also been the target of bipartisan Congressional hearings on the safety of kids online and a documentary film featuring warnings from former Meta insiders who helped design the features at the center of the coalition’s federal lawsuit.

Meta is also one of several social media companies named in a class action lawsuit that includes 13 public school districts in Washington, including Seattle and Kent. That complaint accuses Meta of contributing to increased rates of youth mental health issues, which have reached crisis levels in the wake of the pandemic.

Social media impacts on youth mental health

Experts, including the U.S. Surgeon General, agree that excessive social media use by children and adolescents correlates with physical and psychological harms such as higher rates of depression, anxiety and attention deficit disorders. It can also lead to eating disorders, suicidal thoughts and body dysmorphia.

Social media use can disrupt activities that are essential for health, like sleep and physical activity, depending on the amount of time children spend online.

According to the Surgeon General, recent research shows that adolescents who spend more than three hours per day on social media face double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes, such as symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Social media may perpetuate body dissatisfaction, disordered eating behaviors, social comparison and low self-esteem, especially among adolescent girls. One-third or more of girls aged 11-15 say they feel “addicted” to certain social media platforms and over half of teenagers report that it would be hard to give up social media.