Attorneys general for 33 states filed a federal lawsuit against Meta Tuesday, alleging the company designed and deployed addictive features on Instagram and Facebook that negatively affect children and teenagers. Attorneys general for eight additional states are filing lawsuits against Meta in their respective state courts, following a nationwide investigation that began almost two years ago.

What You Need To Know

  • Attorneys general for 33 states filed a federal lawsuit against Meta Tuesday

  • The lawsuit alleges Meta developed and deployed addictive features on Instagram and Facebook that negatively affected children and teenagers

  • 8 states and the District of Columbia also filed related actions in their respective state courts

  • The suits claim Meta created a business model that sought to maximize the amount of time young users spent on the platform

“Our bipartisan investigation has arrived at a solemn conclusion: Meta has been harming our children and teens, cultivating addiction to boost corporate profits,” California Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a statement.

California is one of dozens of states that filed the federal lawsuit, including Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, alleging Meta violated the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act designed to protect the online privacy of children less than 13 years old.

"Meta has profited from children’s pain by intentionally designing its platforms with manipulative features that make children addicted to their platforms while lowering their self-esteem," New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement. "Social media companies, including Meta, have contributed to a national youth mental health crisis and they must be held accountable."

"Too many kids spend hours every day on Instagram, and Meta isn't keeping them safe," said North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, who is part of the lawsuit.

"A whole generation of young people struggle with their health and safety because companies are trying to make an extra dollar. I am bringing this action to demand that Meta do better and not exploit our children," he said.

Florida, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont and the District of Columbia are filing related actions in their respective state courts.

The federal lawsuit alleges Meta created a business model that sought to maximize the amount of time young users spent on the platform and employed psychologically manipulative features while misleading the public about safety features. Specific features the lawsuit alleges were used to addict children and teens included infinite scroll, near-constant notifications and features designed to create a sense of fear of missing out.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the company said that it "shares" the concerns of the attorneys general about "providing teens with safe, positive experiences online," but expressed "disappointment" that they chose to pursue legal action rather than working with the tech industry "to create clear, age-appropriate standards for the many apps teens use."

The lawsuits were filed against Meta on the same day the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report saying the number of children and adolescents seeking treatment for mental health issues in emergency rooms topped 1 million annually between 2018 and 2021.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, adolescents aged 12 to 15 who spend more than three hours per day on social media have double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes including depression and anxiety.

"We have a youth mental health crisis in the United States of America," Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said during a press conference with five other state attorneys general announcing the lawsuits. "It is very clear that the decisions made by social media platforms like Meta are part of what is driving mental health harms, phyiscal health harms and threats that we can't ignore."

The investigation that resulted in the lawsuits was a bipartisan effort led by Weiser, a Democrat, and Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti, who is Republican. 

"This is a tough time in America," Skrmetti said. "We have polarization the likes of which we have not seen since the Civil War, so for all of the attorneys general from both parties who frequently disagree very vocally and very publicly to all come together and to move in the same direction, that says something. That says that this is a big challenge, that we are taking on powerful opposition."

The state and federal lawsuits against Meta relied substantially on the documents provided by former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen. They claim Meta knew Instagram was "addicting" and had used the word internally when developing features that induced childrens' extended and habitual use by exploiting vulnerabiliites in developing brains.

"Meta is one of the biggest and most powerful companies in the history of the world," Skrmetti said. "They have unfathomable troves of data on their users and others, and they have constantly used the data that they have to refine their products to make them more and more difficult to stop using."

The federal lawsuit is seeking "injunctive relief," according to Bonta. "First and foremost, behavioral change and then civil penalties, restitution, damages are all part of the remedies."

California and several other states are also investigating TikTok for similar harms to youth associated with use of its platform. 

"This is an industry-wide investigation. Because of the size of the companies involved, there has to be sequencing in our approach," Skrmetti said. "This is not just about Meta, but as one of the biggest players, it's appropriate that we lead off with this lawsuit."

Spectrum News' Charles Duncan contributed to this report.