NOVEMBER 18, 2021
A bipartisan coalition of at least nine state attorney generals are investigating Meta over the potentially harmful effects Facebook and Instagram have on young users.
The group of legislators, first noted by the Wall Street Journal, are looking into the techniques and technologies used by Meta to increase the frequency and duration of time young users spend on Facebook and Instagram. More concerning for Meta, the AGs also want to know if the company’s targeting of youth users amounts to a violation of consumer protection laws.
The investigation comes just days after Ohio’s attorney general launched a lawsuit against Meta claiming the company misled the public about the effects its products have on children. That suit, filed on behalf of investors and Ohio Public Employees Retirement System, seeks more than $100 billion in damages.
So far, the states involved in the investigation include Nebraska, Massachusetts, California, Florida, Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee, Vermont, and Connecticut. In a press release, Nebraska attorney general Doug Peterson said his office has long-held concerns over social media’s potential negative harms on younger residents.
“When social media platforms treat our children as mere commodities to manipulate for longer screen time engagement and data extraction, it becomes imperative for state attorneys general to engage our investigative authority under our consumer protection laws,” Peterson said.
The basis for the investigation stems heavily from leaked Meta documents, also first reported on by the Wall Street Journal, that show both an internal acknowledgment of social media’s potential for harm for young users and Meta’s aggressive interest in courting and maintaining youth engagement. Backlash to those documents led to a high-profile hearing by the Senate Commerce subcommittee where lawmakers questioned whistleblower Frances Haugen, who leaked the documents, over Meta’s business practices.
For its part, Meta has pushed back against the characterization of some of those reports and disputes claims made by the attorney generals.
“These accusations are false and demonstrate a deep misunderstanding of the facts,” a Meta spokesperson told Gizmodo in an email. The spokesperson went on to say Meta leads the industry in combating bullying and supporting users struggling with self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and body image issues. “We continue to develop parental supervision controls and are exploring ways to provide even more age-appropriate experiences for teens by default.”
Though the leaked internal documents produced by Haugen provided concrete evidence of what Meta (then called Facebook) knew about the effects of its platforms, child safety advocates and lawmakers have been speaking out about potential harms linked to social media for years.
Back in April, an international child safety coalition of 35 organizations and 64 individual experts called on Facebook to ditch its Instagram app aimed at serving children under the age of 13.
“Instagram, in particular, exploits young people’s fear of missing out and desire for peer approval to encourage children and teens to constantly check their devices and share photos with their followers,” the letter read. “The platform’s relentless focus on appearance, self-presentation, and branding presents challenges to adolescents’ privacy and wellbeing.”
Not long after that, a group of 44 states attorneys general, including several involved in the new ingestion, wrote an open letter to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg begging the founder to ditch Instagram for Kids. Amid the recent torrents of backlash, the company announced in September it would pause its Instagram for Kids venture, but hasn’t gone as far as to abandon the project altogether.