Dozens of states sued Instagram-parent Meta on Tuesday, accusing the social media giant of harming young users’ mental health through allegedly addictive features such as infinite news feeds and frequent notifications that demand users’ constant attention.
In a federal lawsuit filed in California by 33 attorneys general, the states allege that Meta’s products have harmed minors and contributed to a mental health crisis in the United States.
“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,” said Letitia James, the attorney general for New York, one of the states involved in the federal suit. “Social media companies, including Meta, have contributed to a national youth mental health crisis and they must be held accountable.”
Eight additional attorneys general sued Meta on Tuesday in various state courts around the country, making similar claims as the massive multi-state federal lawsuit.
And the state of Florida sued Meta in its own separate federal lawsuit, alleging that Meta misled users about potential health risks of its products.
Tuesday’s multistate federal suit — filed in the US District Court for the Northern District of California — accuses Meta of violating a range of state-based consumer protection statutes, as well as a federal children’s privacy law known as COPPA that prohibits companies from collecting the personal information of children under 13 without a parent’s consent.
“Meta’s design choices and practices take advantage of and contribute to young users’ susceptibility to addiction,” the complaint reads. “They exploit psychological vulnerabilities of young users through the false promise that meaningful social connection lies in the next story, image, or video and that ignoring the next piece of social content could lead to social isolation.”
The federal complaint calls for court orders prohibiting Meta from violating the law and, in the case of many states, unspecified financial penalties.
“We share the attorneys generals’ commitment to providing teens with safe, positive experiences online, and have already introduced over 30 tools to support teens and their families,” Meta said in a statement. “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 wave of lawsuits is the result of a bipartisan, multistate investigation dating back to 2021, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said at a press conference Tuesday, after Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen came forward with tens of thousands of internal company documents that she said showed how the company knew its products could have negative impacts on young people’s mental health.
“We know that there were decisions made, a series of decisions to make the product more and more addictive,” Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti told reporters. “And what we want is for the company to undo that, to make sure that they are not exploiting these vulnerabilities in children, that they are not doing all the little, sophisticated, tricky things that we might not pick up on that drive engagement higher and higher and higher that allowed them to keep taking more and more time and data from our young people.”
Tuesday’s multipronged legal assault also marks the newest attempt by states to rein in large tech platforms over fears that social media companies are fueling a spike in youth depression and suicidal ideation.
“There’s a mountain of growing evidence that social media has a negative impact on our children,” said California Attorney General Rob Bonta, “evidence that more time on social media tends to be correlated with depression with anxiety, body image issues, susceptibility to addiction and interference with daily life, including learning.”
The suits follow a raft of legislation in states ranging from Arkansas to Louisiana that clamp down on social media by establishing new requirements for online platforms that wish to serve teens and children, such as mandating that they obtain a parent’s consent before creating an account for a minor, or that they verify users’ ages.
In some cases, the tech industry has challenged those laws in court — for example, by claiming that Arkansas’ social media law violates residents’ First Amendment rights to access information.
New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella said the states expect Meta to mount a similar defense but that the company will not succeed because the multistate suit targets Meta’s conduct, not speech.
Formella added that in addition to consumer protection claims, New Hampshire is also bringing negligence and product liability claims as part of the federal suit.
The complaints filed in state courts allege violations of various state-specific laws. For example, the complaint from District of Columbia Attorney General Brian Schwalb accuses Meta of violating the district’s consumer protection statute by misleading the public about the safety of company platforms.
Tuesday’s lawsuits come days before a federal judge in California is set to consider a slew of similar allegations against the wider tech industry. In a hearing Friday morning, District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers is expected to hear arguments by Google, Meta, Snap and TikTok urging her to dismiss nearly 200 complaints involving private plaintiffs that have accused the companies of addicting or harming their users.
It is possible that Tuesday’s multistate suit could be merged with the consumers’ cases, said Weiser, adding that the main difference of the multistate case is that it could lead to nationwide relief.
“The coordination that we bring across the AG community, we believe is invaluable to this,” Weiser said.
Participating in Tuesday’s multistate federal suit are 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, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
The additional suits filed in state courts were brought by the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah and Vermont.