What Led 42 States to Unite in a Lawsuit Against Meta Concerning the Mental Well-being of Children

Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, is facing a legal challenge from attorneys general in 33 U.S. states. The lawsuit alleges that Meta deliberately designed its platforms to appeal to children, leading to negative effects on their mental health. The states, including California, Colorado, New York, Arizona, and Illinois, argue that Meta violated state and federal laws in its pursuit of keeping young users engaged on their platforms.

According to the lawsuit, Meta has fundamentally altered the lives of a generation of young Americans by using sophisticated technologies to captivate and involve youth and teenagers, all in the name of profit. In addition to the joint lawsuit, nine attorneys general filed individual suits in their respective states and the District of Columbia, making similar claims about Meta’s harmful practices concerning young users.

The lawsuit outlines several ways in which Meta is alleged to have violated laws protecting young consumers. These include maximizing children’s time and attention on their platforms, employing addictive design features while downplaying risks to children, and ignoring research suggesting that social media can harm young users. Some specific claims about the harmful effects of Facebook and Instagram on children are redacted in the lawsuit.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta stated, “Evidence shows that excessive social media use has been linked to issues such as sleep problems, attention problems, and feelings of exclusion among young people.” The attorneys general assert that Meta has violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) by collecting data from users under the age of 13 without obtaining parental consent. Beyond COPPA, the lawsuit argues that Meta violates state consumer protection laws through its business practices targeting young users.

While Meta faces legal challenges from the states, the big tech trade group Chamber of Progress has pushed back against the lawsuit, contending that social media has a positive impact on kids and teens. Chamber of Progress CEO Adam Kovacevich argued that empirical studies do not support the idea that social media is responsible for negative mental health trends among teens.

This coordinated legal attack against a major social media company represents a significant effort to address concerns related to the impact of social media on young users. In the United States, regulatory efforts to hold social platforms accountable for their societal impacts have been limited, and social media remains largely unregulated for American users.

Paul Barrett, Deputy Director and Senior Research Scholar at the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, suggests that state attorneys general are stepping into this regulatory void strategically. They are aiming for a settlement that could force Meta to make changes to mitigate the harms identified in the lawsuit. While the lawsuit targets Meta specifically, it may serve as an example for the entire industry, with other companies potentially pressured to adopt similar changes.

In the end, a protracted legal battle between Meta and a bipartisan coalition of U.S. states over the safety of children on social media platforms may become untenable for the company. As Barrett notes, one of the few areas of agreement between Republicans and Democrats is the desire to protect children from the negative aspects of social media.

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