Meta accused of fuelling mental health crisis in youth

In a class action that is being seen as potential test case for social media’s health effects, dozens of US states are suing Meta Platforms and its Instagram unit.

The states accuse them of fuelling a youth mental health crisis by making their social media platforms addictive.

In a complaint filed on 24 October, the attorneys general of 33 states including California and New York said Meta, which also operates Facebook, repeatedly misled the public about the dangers of its platforms, and knowingly induced young children and teenagers into addictive and compulsive social media use.

“Meta has harnessed powerful and unprecedented technologies to entice, engage, and ultimately ensnare youth and teens,” according to the complaint filed in the Oakland, California federal court. “Its motive is profit.”

The states said research has associated children’s use of Meta’s social media platforms with “depression, anxiety, insomnia, interference with education and daily life, and many other negative outcomes”.

Meta has denied the claims and said it was “disappointed” with the lawsuit. “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 company said.

Mark Zuckerberg, Meta’s CEO, has defended in the past his company’s handling of content that some critics find harmful.

“At the heart of these accusations is this idea that we prioritise profit over safety and well-being. That’s just not true,” he posted in October 2021 on his Facebook page.

The lawsuit by the 33 states alleged that Meta has strived to ensure that young people spend as much time as possible on social media despite knowing that they are susceptible to the need for approval in the form of ‘likes’ from other users about their content.

“Meta has been harming our children and teens, cultivating addiction to boost corporate profits,” said California Attorney General Rob Bonta, whose state includes Meta’s headquarters.

States also accused Meta of violating a law banning the collection of data of children under age 13, and deceptively denying that its social media was harmful.

“Meta did not disclose that its algorithms were designed to capitalise on young users’ dopamine responses and create an addictive cycle of engagement,” the complaint said.

Dopamine is a type of neurotransmitter that is understood to play a role in feelings of pleasure. 

States have also alleged Meta is seeking to expand its harmful practices into virtual reality, including its Horizon Worlds platform and the WhatsApp and Messenger apps.