41 states sue Meta for harming the mental health of its youngest users

The lawsuit claims the company misled the public about the safety of its platform.


Meta is facing a massive lawsuit from 41 states as well as the District of Columbia over alleged harms to its young users. Attorneys general from dozens of states joined a lawsuit, filed in California federal court, claiming that Meta knew its “addictive” features were harmful and intentionally misled the public about the safety of its platform.

In addition to the California suit, attorneys general from eight other states filed their own claims against the company. In a statement, California Attorney General Rob Bonta described the filings as part of a “coordinated effort” to hold Meta accountable for alleged misconduct. “Our bipartisan investigation has arrived at a solemn conclusion: Meta has been harming our children and teens, cultivating addiction to boost corporate profits,” Bonta said in a statement.

A central claim of the lawsuit is that Meta’s business model depends on holding the attention of young users on Facebook and Instagram, even at the expense of their wellbeing. “Meta designed and deployed harmful and psychologically manipulative product features to induce young users’ compulsive and extended Platform use, while falsely assuring the public that its features were safe and suitable for young users,” the lawsuit states. It added that the company “routinely” shared reports suggesting otherwise despite “overwhelming internal research” showing its features were harmful.

The lawsuit — sections of which are redacted — also calls out several other Instagram features, including likes, filters and its recommendation algorithm. It states that likes promote “compulsive use” of the app and that filters can promote eating disorders and body dysmorphia. The lawsuit also alleges that Instagram’s highly scrutinized recommendations are “designed to capitalize on young users’ dopamine responses and create an addictive cycle of engagement.” The app’s algorithms, it alleges, “routinely present young users with psychologically and emotionally distressing content,” in order to increase time spent in the app.

“We share 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,” a Meta spokesperson said in a statement. “We’re 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.”

The lawsuit is the latest reckoning over the company’s handling of youth safety and mental health. Lawmakers, regulators and other officials have become increasingly focused on the issue, and whether social media companies are doing enough to protect their youngest users. Meta has come under particular scrutiny since the disclosure of internal documents by a former employee turned whistleblower, Frances Haugen.

Her disclosures, known as the Facebook Files, included internal research that showed teens struggling with mental health issues reported that Instagram made them feel worse. The company has attempted to downplay this research, saying that it was taken out of context.

The disclosures ultimately prompted the company to indefinitely pause work on an Instagram Kids app. Meta also released a slew of new safety features for Instagram, including changing the default privacy settings and limiting ad targeting features for younger teens. Instagram also added reminders for teens to “take a break’ from the app and new parental control features.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the lawsuits are the result of a years-long investigation into Meta spearheaded by Colorado and Tennessee’s attorneys general. Meta had been in settlement talks with the states, but those discussions “failed.”

Meta isn’t the only social media company that’s faced scrutiny over its effect on teenage users. Snap, TikTok and YouTube have also been criticized by lawmakers for safety issues. In his statement about the Meta lawsuit, California Attorney General Bonta noted that there’s also “an ongoing investigation into TikTok for harms to youth associated with the use of its platform.”