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Wisconsin among 33 states suing Meta for making platforms addictive to kids

By Brandi Makuski

Numerous U.S. states, including Wisconsin and California, have initiated legal action against Meta Platforms Inc., accusing the company of knowingly and intentionally creating features on Instagram and Facebook that ensnare children in their platforms, thereby harming young people and exacerbating the youth mental health crisis.

A lawsuit filed by 33 states in a federal court in California alleges that Meta systematically collects data on children under the age of 13 without obtaining parental consent, thereby violating federal law.

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul has also joined other attorneys general who are filing lawsuits in their respective states, bringing the total number of states pursuing action to 41, along with Washington, D.C.

The complaint contends, “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. It has concealed the ways in which these platforms exploit and manipulate its most vulnerable consumers: teenagers and children.”

The lawsuits seek financial damages, restitution, and a cessation of Meta’s practices that breach the law.

“We must keep our kids safe—and that includes from dangers online,” Kaul said in a press statement. “Adequate protections should be in place to protect kids from harms associated with social media, and parents must receive accurate information about potential dangers to their kids.”

In response, Meta stated that it shares “the attorneys general’s commitment to providing teens with safe, positive experiences online and has already introduced over 30 tools to support teens and their families.”

The company expressed disappointment that the attorneys general had chosen a confrontational approach rather than working collaboratively with the industry to establish clear, age-appropriate standards for the many apps used by teenagers.

The comprehensive federal lawsuit resulted from an investigation led by a bipartisan coalition of attorneys general from California, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Vermont. The action follows the publication of damaging newspaper reports, initially by The Wall Street Journal in the fall of 2021, which were based on Meta’s internal research revealing the adverse effects of Instagram on teenagers, particularly teen girls, regarding mental health and body image issues. One internal study indicated that 13.5 percent of teen girls believed Instagram worsened thoughts of suicide, while 17 precent believed it exacerbated eating disorders.

Following these initial reports, a consortium of news organizations, including The Associated Press, published their own findings, which were based on leaked documents from whistleblower Frances Haugen, who testified before Congress and a British parliamentary committee about her discoveries.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta asserted, “Meta has been harming our children and teens, cultivating addiction to boost corporate profits. With today’s lawsuit, we are drawing the line.”

The use of social media among teens is nearly ubiquitous in the U.S. and many other parts of the world. Almost all teens aged 13 to 17 in the U.S. report using a social media platform, with about one-third indicating they use social media “almost constantly,” according to the Pew Research Center.

To comply with federal regulations, social media companies prohibit children under the age of 13 from registering on their platforms. However, children have been shown to easily circumvent those restrictions, both with and without their parents’ consent, resulting in many younger children having social media accounts. The states’ complaint contends that Meta knowingly violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act by collecting data on children without informing and obtaining permission from their parents.

Efforts by social platforms to address concerns about children’s mental health are also easily circumvented. For example, TikTok recently introduced a default 60-minute time limit for users under 18. Nevertheless, once the limit is reached, minors can simply enter a passcode to continue watching. TikTok, Snapchat, and other social platforms that have also been accused of contributing to the youth mental health crisis are not part of Tuesday’s lawsuit.

Washington, D.C. Attorney General Brian Schwalb declined to comment on whether they are also examining TikTok or Snapchat, stating that for now, their focus is on Facebook and Instagram within the Meta empire. He stated, “They’re the worst of the worst when it comes to using technology to addict teenagers to social media, all in the furtherance of putting profits over people.”

In May, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy called on tech companies, parents, and caregivers to take “immediate action to protect kids now” from the harms of social media.