Law & Courts

41 States Sue Meta Over the Social Media Giant’s Impact on Kids

By Alyson Klein & Arianna Prothero — October 24, 2023 7 min read
Image of a phone on the floor near the feet of a girl sitting on the floor.
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Thirty-three states are banding together to sue Meta, the company behind Facebook and Instagram, saying the social media giant is consciously harming children’s mental health. An additional eight states, plus the District of Columbia, are filing suits in their own states over similar issues.

The broader lawsuit, filed by a bipartisan coalition of 33 state attorneys general in California’s federal court, also claims that the company shares data about children under 13 without their parents’ consent, in violation of federal privacy laws.

Meta disagreed with their contention and said states should be working to craft standards for platform use by young people.

But the language in the lawsuit from the 33 states made a strong case against the social media company.

“Meta has harnessed powerful and unprecedented technologies to entice, engage, and ultimately ensnare youth and teens. 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,” the complaint from the 33 states says. “It has concealed the ways in which these platforms exploit and manipulate its most vulnerable consumers: teenagers and children.

The broader lawsuit alleges that the company is exploiting young people’s vulnerabilities by developing algorithms intended to keep users on the platform as long as possible, even compulsively; creating visual filters it knows can contribute to body dysmorphia; and presenting content in an “infinite scroll” format that makes it hard for children to disengage.

In a statement, Meta said it shares “the attorneys general’s commitment to providing teens with safe, positive experiences online, and have already introduced over 30 tools to support teens and their families,” including regular reminders encouraging teens to take breaks from platforms like Instagram.

But the company added that it is “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.”

Educators have raised alarms over how social media use negatively impacts kids’ mental health—and ability to learn—for several years. In 2023, several school districts took the extraordinary step of suing Meta and other social media companies over the harm their products allegedly cause.

Schools ‘deal with the consequences all day, every day’

Educators should cheer the states’ legal action, said Jim Steyer, the founder of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that focuses on the impact of technology on youth.

“The majority of attorneys general in the United States might be taking a stand against Meta’s harmful and addictive design practices,” Steyer said in an interview. “But teachers and principals and district leaders deal with the consequences of that all day, every day.”

Any financial gain to states stemming from the lawsuits should be spent on investing “far more resources” into schools and mental health services, he said.

Educators have spent an increasing amount of their time thinking about what students are looking at online and how it may be impacting them emotionally, said Chrissie Masi, an education technology specialist in Morris school district in New Jersey, addressing the impact of social media on students in her district and not the lawsuits specifically.

“For someone who is a director of tech, this is the stuff that keeps you up at night,” she said. “You always have that in the back of your head, ‘are our kids making positive virtual choices?’” Her district has put a heavy focus on digital citizenship, helping students find a “digital balance” and learn how to communicate with one another in person, without the aid of devices, she said.

A little more than half of U.S. teenagers—51 percent—report spending at least four hours a day on social media apps, including YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, and X (formerly Twitter), according to a recent Gallup survey of more than 1,500 adolescents. That amounts to 4.8 hours per day for the average teen across the seven social media platforms examined in the survey, the company reported.

Steyer argues that Meta is the “biggest offender” when it comes to ignoring evidence of its platforms’ impact on youth mental health. But he believes the sweeping legal action will put other companies on notice.

“This is a warning shot across the bow,” Steyer said.

Thousands of pages of documents released in 2021 by a whistleblower show Meta conducted extensive research on the negative impact of its platforms on children’s mental health and the spread of false information, but failed to act on any of those findings.

‘It’s just like cigarettes’

The company ignored those findings, Frances Haugen, the whistleblower, a former Facebook product manager, said in testifying before Congress in October of that year.

“Facebook understands that if they want to continue to grow, they have to find new users, they have to make sure that that next generation is just as engaged on Instagram as the current one,” Haugen said. “And the way they’ll do that is by making sure that children establish habits before they have good self-regulation … It’s just like cigarettes. [Teenagers] say they feel bad when they use Instagram but can’t stop.”

What’s more, in May, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warned that social media poses serious potential risk to children’s mental health.

“We do not have enough evidence to conclude that social media is sufficiently safe for our kids,” Murthy said in an opinion piece published in The Washington Post. “In fact, there is increasing evidence that social media use during adolescence—a critical stage of brain development—is associated with harm to mental health and well-being.”

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, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin have joined the broader lawsuit filed in California’s federal court, according to James’ statement.

Florida, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, and the District of Columbia, filed similar action in their own state courts.

Track record of district lawsuits

This isn’t the first time Meta has faced legal action for its impact on student mental health. Several school districts across the country have sued Meta and other major social media companies, claiming their products are designed to be addictive, have been marketed to children, and are eroding students’ mental health.

Schools have been left to cover the growing costs of increased mental health problems among students, such as hiring additional personnel to manage the academic fallout from students who are anxious or depressed and are struggling to learn in school.

Seattle Public schools was the first to file such a lawsuit in January, and since then districts across the country have initiated their own, several of which have been consolidated into one lawsuit.

In Seattle’s case, the district claims that the number of students in the school system reporting that they feel “so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that they stopped doing some usual activities” has risen 30 percent in the decade since 2009. Around that same year was the beginning of the rise of widespread student access to smartphones and social media. King County, where the Seattle district is located, has seen an increase in suicides, attempted suicides, and mental health emergency room-related visits among school-age children, the lawsuit says. The district is asking for the social media companies named in its suit to pay for damages as well as preventative education and treatment for problematic social media use, among other remedies.

The flurry of lawsuits echoes a pre-pandemic push by districts to use the courts to push the manufacturers of e-cigarettes to pay for the money districts spent on counseling, treatment, and smoking prevention programs among teens. In some cases, the same attorneys who represented school districts in their e-cigarette lawsuits are working with them to sue social media companies.

Even though Seattle’s lawsuit cites a large body of research that has found social media is hard on children and adolescents’ mental health, it’s hard to draw a direct line from social media use to the worsening youth mental health crisis when so many other factors could be at play, say legal experts.

The chance that these district-led lawsuits against social media companies will culminate in a legal victory is slim, say legal experts, but the lawsuits will have the effect of raising awareness of the crisis schools and youth are facing.

State legislatures have also been proposing laws to curb youth social media use, with Arkansas and Utah passing laws requiring social media companies to verify users’ ages and get parental consent before allowing minors to set up profiles on their platforms. Two similar federal bills have been proposed in the U.S. Senate.

The Associated Press, Wire Service contributed to this article.

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