A multistate lawsuit charging Meta with harming the health of children heightens the nation’s ongoing battle to effectively deal with social media. It is a balancing act that has profound societal implications and thus far has been bereft of adequate solutions.
Washington this week joined 32 other states in filing the suit against the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, charging that Meta not only targets young social media users but also developed “psychologically manipulative” features to keep them hooked on its apps. Meanwhile, eight other states and the District of Columbia have filed similar complaints in federal, state or local courts.
The complex issue likely will come down to whether Meta officials knew that their apps are harmful and have willfully exploited the danger. From a more simplistic viewpoint, the question is the duty of teens and their parents to govern use of popular social media sites.
“Parents are doing their best to protect their kids,” Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said Tuesday at a news conference. “But they are up against a sophisticated social media giant that is exploiting its most addictive features for profit. The onus cannot be entirely on parents.”
The states will seek financial penalties under consumer protection laws, and the 233-page complaint claims that Meta’s conduct “constitutes unfair or deceptive acts or practices in violation of the Washington Consumer Protection Act.”
Meta officials responded to the lawsuit by noting that the company has introduced “over 30 tools to support teens and their families,” pointing to features such as age verification, parental supervision and prompts on its platforms that remind teenagers to take a break from social media.
Yet the scope of the issue can be seen in the fact that both Democratic and Republican attorneys general are party to the suit. California AG Rob Bonta said: “Our bipartisan investigation has arrived at a solemn conclusion — Meta has been harming our children and teens, cultivating addiction to boost corporate profits.”
The American Psychological Association has said that using social media is not “inherently beneficial or harmful to young people,” and there is research that suggests social media can be positive for a young person’s mental health. But the Mayo Clinic adds: “Social media use also can negatively affect teens, distracting them, disrupting their sleep, and exposing them to bullying, rumor spreading, unrealistic views of other people’s lives and peer pressure. The risks might be related to how much social media teens use.”
All of that will be hashed out — likely between the litigants before the issue arrives in court. But it raises important questions about personal responsibility and the role of multinational corporations in social manipulation.
In that regard, it is reminiscent of a series of lawsuits that culminated with the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement in 1998. Accused of cultivating addictions and then profiting from those addictions, four major tobacco companies ultimately agreed to alter their marketing practices and make payments to the states in perpetuity. The agreement called for at least $206 billion over the first 25 years to help cover the health care costs incurred by the states.
In other words, manipulative practices can be costly for corporations that appear to be all-powerful and above scrutiny. Whether Meta has engaged in such manipulation remains to be seen, but the states should be lauded for raising the question.