Massachusetts joined 40 other states and the District of Columbia on Tuesday in filing lawsuits against Meta Platforms, accusing the company of purposely harming children who use its popular Facebook and Instagram apps.
Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Joy Campbell sued Meta in Suffolk Superior Court as part of a larger legal effort that includes a multistate federal lawsuit against the company filed in California. New Hampshire also filed its own lawsuit while Rhode Island joined other states involved in the federal case.
Campbell alleges that Meta violated Massachusetts consumer protection law by designing its apps to addict younger users while deceiving the public about the dangers the apps posed. Features such as an infinitely scrolling feed, frequent notifications, and autoplay videos lured teenagers using the same kinds of psychological tricks as casino slot machines, she said.
“Meta secretly deployed design features and mechanisms that deliberately exploited young people’s still developing brains and adolescent vulnerabilities,” Campbell said during a news conference on Tuesday. “The company knew exactly how these design decisions could and would hook young people to the point of addiction, and yet continued to use them, and in many cases, rejected using feasible alternatives.”
New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella said his state was suing locally under local product liability and negligence laws.
“The actions we’re taking today send a strong message, we will not tolerate the pursuit of profit at the expense of the mental health and well-being of New Hampshire’s kids,” he said at the news conference.
Meta denied that it had purposely harmed children or misled the public.
“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,” the company 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 Massachusetts lawsuit alleged that Instagram enticed young users to use the app for multiple hours a day in an addictive manner, leading to children skipping homework and putting off sleep. Massachusetts and the other states are seeking a ruling to force Meta to remove or replace the addictive Instagram features.
But Sophie Godley, an associate professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health who studies the impact of social media on children, does not think such remedies would actually solve the problem.
“We’ve learned that the capitalist drive for these products is ultimately about making money,” Godley said. “I find it hard to imagine a way to redesign that could be less harmful.”
She recommended keeping children off social media as long as possible while their brains are still developing. “When I talk to parents and do training, I talk about social media as if it was an addictive substance,” she said.
Portions of the lawsuit detailing sensitive nonpublic information about Meta were redacted from the public filing. Campbell said that was due to protective orders sought by Meta during the investigation but she hoped the court would agree to allow her to release an unrestricted version of the suit soon.
The lawsuits followed a two-year, multistate investigation prompted by a massive leak of internal Facebook documents to the Wall Street Journal in 2021.
The so-called Facebook Files, leaked by whistle-blower Frances Haugen, included internal studies that found teenagers could be harmed by some of the social media services features.
The states’ investigation also turned up additional evidence that “the company acknowledged internally that it had misled the public with its external public facing comments,” California Attorney General Rob Bonta said at the news conference. Employees also used the word “addicting” in internal communications, he said.
Concerns have been building for years about the impact of social media on children and teens. More than a decade ago, studies started to uncover links between some adolescents’ use of social media and mental health problems, including a phenomenon dubbed “Facebook depression.”
The studies also found benefits to teenagers’ use of social media, such as fostering inclusion for LGBTQ+ children. In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued guidelines recommending parents impose limits on the use of social media, without completely banning the apps.