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OPINION

Instagram and kids: Why dozens of attorneys general are suing Meta

Meta’s longstanding slogan was “move fast and break things.” Now responsible public officials are left to clean up the mess and hold accountable those who made it.

Jenny Kane/Associated Press

Imagine a product used by 90 percent of young people, including nearly 500,000 youth between 13 and 17 years old in Massachusetts and New Hampshire alone, that was designed to manipulate their developing brains to override their desire to stop. Imagine that the company responsible for the product knew it harmed children and even developed approaches to limit that harm. But rather than implementing those approaches, the company instead chose to tell the public that the safety of children was its highest priority.

As the attorneys general of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, we allege these are the business practices of Meta as they relate to Instagram. We uncovered evidence of these practices in a multiyear investigation conducted with a bipartisan coalition of 41 attorneys general. Now, by filing suit, we intend to prove that Meta’s practices violate our consumer protection state laws. Let us explain why.

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Instagram was designed to consume as much of its users’ time and attention as possible. It relies on the same mechanism used by slot machines — known as intermittent variable rewards — to keep users, and particularly young users, refreshing their feed and returning to the platform. It’s no accident that in Massachusetts and New Hampshire we don’t allow slot machine operators to target youth. When young users attempt to turn away, Instagram lures them back with up to 40 types of notifications specifically designed to attract their attention. Our investigation revealed that half of young people using social media receive 237 notifications every day. Our investigation uncovered Meta’s own research confirming that this constant barrage of notifications overloads and overwhelms young users and compels them to return to Instagram at all hours.

When they are on the Instagram platform, users are inundated with streams of material. Some of that is intentionally available for a limited amount of time to leverage a young person’s fear of missing out. Some material includes that which Meta itself recognizes is harmful, like content related to suicide, self-injury, eating disorders, or harassment.

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This all occurs through a device that is perpetually less than an arm’s length away from our young people and away from the eyes and ears of the adults who care for them. As US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy noted, when our youth are being pitted “against the world’s greatest product designers,” it’s “just not a fair fight.”

We allege, based on our investigations, that Meta has an abundance of data about its users and fully understands that its design choices have pervasive effects on young people — particularly young women. This data could be used to change Instagram to make it the benign social network Meta claims it is. In fact, Meta has internally researched numerous design changes that would make Instagram less addictive and its algorithm less likely to amplify content the company itself recognizes to be harmful. But because these changes could result in less use of the platform, and possibly slightly less revenue, Meta rejected them.

Instead, what we discovered was that Meta has opted to deceive all of us. It claims that Instagram is not addictive, that youth well-being is its “top priority,” and that the extent to which young users have harmful experiences on Instagram are vanishingly rare. We allege that this deception is key to Instagram’s recruitment of new users and retention of existing users — and in attracting advertisers, whose revenue is Meta’s lifeblood.

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When we found this evidence, we chose to use the powers of our offices to protect young people. Many of our peers throughout the country, Republicans and Democrats alike, made the same choice.

We know the road ahead will be long and difficult. Using the courts to hold a Fortune 500 company to account is an imperfect process. So we call on policy makers in our respective states to act in the meantime. That may mean legislation to prevent addictive designs or mandate clearer and more forceful public communication about the harm from Instagram.

Meta’s longstanding slogan was “move fast and break things.” Now responsible public officials are left to clean up the mess and hold accountable those who made it. On behalf of the young people of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, that’s exactly what we intend to do.

Andrea Joy Campbell is attorney general of Massachusetts. John Formella is attorney general of New Hampshire.