Nessel joins lawsuit against Meta for harming kids’ mental health

Nessel joins lawsuit against Meta for harming kids’ mental health

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel speaks at a campaign rally last year in East Lansing. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

By Kyle Kaminski

October 25, 2023

A coalition of attorneys general are suing the company behind Facebook and Instagram for using ‘powerful’ technology to get children addicted to social media. 

MICHIGAN—Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and attorneys general from dozens of other states are suing Meta for allegedly harming young people and knowingly and deliberately designing features on Instagram and Facebook that addicted children to its platforms.

A lawsuit filed by 33 states in federal court claims that Meta routinely collects data on children under 13 without their parents’ consent, in violation of federal law. Nine attorneys general are also filing lawsuits in their states, bringing the total number of states taking action to 41.

“Meta has, for some time, been aware of the dangers that ongoing and constant exposure to social media has on young people,” Nessel said in a statement this week. “Documents recently made public show that Meta put its desire to profit from teens’ engagement on its platforms above the physical and mental health of that very impressionable demographic.”

The complaint alleges that Meta harnessed “powerful and unprecedented technologies” to “entice, engage, and ultimately ensnare” children to “maximize its financial gains.” It also contends the company misled the public about the substantial dangers of its platforms.

“I stand firmly with my colleagues in asserting that Meta has misrepresented the addictive nature of social media and has violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, for which it should be held accountable,” Nessel said.

The broad-ranging federal suit—which seeks financial damages, restitution, and an end to Meta’s practices that are in violation of the law—is the result of an investigation led by California, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Vermont. 

It follows damning revelations, first reported by The Wall Street Journal in the fall of 2021, based on the Meta’s own research, that found that the company knew about the harm Instagram can cause teenagers—especially teen girls—when it comes to mental health and body image issues. One internal study cited 13.5% of teen girls saying Instagram makes thoughts of suicide worse and 17% of teen girls saying it makes eating disorders worse.

Following the first reports, a consortium of news organizations, including The Associated Press, published their own findings based on leaked documents from whistleblower Frances Haugen, who has testified before Congress and a British parliamentary committee about what she found.

The use of social media among teens is nearly universal in the US and many other parts of the world. Almost all teens ages 13 to 17 in the US report using a social media platform, with about a third saying they use social media “almost constantly,” according to the Pew Research Center.

To comply with federal regulation, social media companies ban kids under 13 from signing up to their platforms—but children have been shown to easily get around the bans, both with and without their parents’ consent, and many younger kids have social media accounts. The states’ complaint says Meta knowingly violated this law, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, by collecting data on children without informing and getting permission from their parents.

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

Nessel said the coalition is also investigating TikTok’s conduct on a “similar set of concerns.”

In May, US 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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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