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Think of the Children: Meta in Court

By A.J. Firstman | Last updated on

The attorneys general for 42 states have filed a group complaint against Meta, the owner of the ubiquitous social media platforms Facebook and Instagram. The complaint, filed in late October 2023, alleges that the company's products have caused severe harm to the collective psyche of America's youth, exacerbating – if not causing – the steep increase in depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses among children and young adults. The attorneys general rely on a large and growing body of research, survey data, expert opinions and analysis, and even some of Meta's own reports to make the case that the company has knowingly contributed to the mental health crisis afflicting America's youth.

Meta disagrees.

Meta Analysis

The complaint alleges that Meta's "scheme" had four parts:

First: Creating a business model that relied on attracting young users and getting them to stay on the platform for as long as possible. In doing so they directly incentivized Meta developers to design features that encouraged addictive behaviors in the interest of keeping users engaged with their products.

Second: Building a series of psychologically manipulative features that take advantage of vulnerabilities in young minds in the interest of maximizing engagement. The complaint alleges that Meta is aware that younger brains are more vulnerable to certain kinds of manipulation, and they chose to exploit those vulnerabilities through features like:

  • Recommendation algorithms designed to manipulate through targeted dopamine release
  • Likes and other means of social comparison that Meta knows are harmful to young users
  • Constant alerts designed to draw young users back to Meta's platforms during school and at night
  • Visual filters that are known to contribute to self esteem issues and body dysmorphia
  • Infinite scrolling and other content delivery formats meant to "discourage young users' attempts to self-regulate and disengage"

Third: In spite of Meta allegedly being well aware of the manipulative, addictive, and harmful nature of its platforms and their features, Meta made spurious claims that none of the above were true. In fact, Meta allegedly published falsified reports claiming that it had data indicating its platforms produced almost no negative effects at all. Its platforms weren't just safe for young users, they were designed to be safe and perfectly benign for young people.

Fourth: Meta has allegedly continued to downplay the damage its platforms cause in spite of the volumes of research, surveys, and analysis done by various universities and organizations. Worse, Meta commissioned its own internal studies that confirmed just how damaging their platforms can be to young users, but it chose to keep the results of those studies secret until they were released by a whistleblower within the company.

Meta is allegedly well aware that social media use by young people is associated with "depression, anxiety, insomnia, interference with education and daily life, and many other negative outcomes." They know they're causing significant harm to young people who use their products – they just don't care.

The attorneys general also claim Meta violates the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) by routinely collecting and monetizing the personal information and user data of children who use their products.

If this is true, Meta hasn't just contributed to the mental health crisis among America's youth, it's done so knowingly and taken extensive actions to conceal its culpability from the public.

A Little Context

When people talk about a mental health crisis affecting America's youth, they aren't exaggerating. America's youth is in crisis. Depression and anxiety are on the rise. One in five children between the ages of 3-17 has a diagnosable mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 10 and 24. The number of children and young adults with depression nearly doubled between 2011 and 2021, and COVID exacerbated that already alarming trend.

Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murphy issued an Advisory about social media's impact on youth mental health in June 2023. According to the Advisory, up to 95% of youth ages 13-17 use social media. More than a third report using social media “almost constantly." And while it admits that there is not sufficient evidence to lay all the blame on social media for the problems facing the collective mental health of all the nation's youth, there is a clear connection between the two.

Necessary Roughness?

Meta said it was "disappointed" in the lawsuit. A statement from the company said, in part: "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."

This is not the first time the subject has been broached. But codifying the standards Meta suggests would be hard given the tech savviness of the average legislator even if Congress could agree to a mutually agreeable solution.

There has been research on the subject, think pieces, white papers, op-eds, speeches, requests, demands, and heartfelt pleas for something to be done. The attorneys general clearly believe the next step is to try to hold social media platforms accountable.

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