Why 42 states came together to sue Meta over kids' mental health

Attorneys general from dozens of states sued Meta this week, accusing the company of deliberately designing its products to appeal to kids to the detriment of their mental health.

In the lawsuit, filed in California federal court Tuesday, 33 states -- including California, Colorado, New York, Arizona and Illinois -- argue that Meta violated state and federal laws in the process of luring young users in the U.S. into spending more time on Facebook and Instagram.

"Over the past decade, Meta... has profoundly altered the psychological and social realities of a generation of young Americans," the lawsuit states, accusing the company of "[harnessing] powerful and unprecedented technologies to entice, engage, and ultimately ensnare youth and teens" in the name of profit.

In addition to the 33 states suing Meta together, nine attorneys general also filed individual suits in their own states and the District of Columbia, making parallel claims about Meta's deceptive and harmful practices affecting its young users.

The lawsuit highlights a few ways that Meta has allegedly violated laws protecting young consumers: "maximizing" the time and attention of children on its platforms, leveraging addictive product design while publicly downplaying risks to kids and ignoring research, both internal and external, that suggests social platforms can harm young users. Some of the claims around Facebook and Instagram's harmful effects on children are redacted in the lawsuit.

"[There is] evidence that excessive and problematic social media use has been linked to sleep problems, attention problems and feelings of exclusion among young people," California Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a press conference.

"As if being young isn't hard enough — Meta knows all of this and more and yet has decided to disregard the serious dangers to promote their products to prominence to make a profit. Not only do they disregard the danger, they lied about it; they lied to users, to parents, to all of us."

The attorneys general point to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), a law that they say Meta runs afoul of by collecting data from users under age 13 without obtaining parental consent. Beyond COPPA, the lawsuit argues that Meta violates state consumer protection laws with its business practices targeting young users.

The big tech trade group Chamber of Progress pushed back against the lawsuit on Tuesday, arguing that social media's impact on kids and teens skews positive, not negative. "Big tech is an easy political punching bag, but the reality is that large, empirical studies don’t suggest social media is the driver behind mental health trends among teens," Chamber of Progress CEO Adam Kovacevich said.

The joint lawsuit launched in tandem with the state suits is a notably coordinated legal barrage against a major social media company.

In the U.S., an increasingly dysfunctional Congress has failed to hold social platforms responsible for their deleterious impacts on society beyond dragging tech CEOs into hearing after hearing. Social media remains largely unregulated for American users as a result, for better or worse. Laws regulating social media in markets like Britain and Europe do have the spillover potential to shape the behavior of tech companies in the U.S., but domestic efforts to rein in social platforms have largely stalled out or failed to materialize altogether.

Paul Barrett, deputy director and senior research scholar at the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, notes that state leaders are strategically stepping into that "regulatory vacuum."

"The state AGs are betting that there is enough evidence of harm to certain vulnerable children that Meta will not want to fight indefinitely in the court of public opinion, even if the company believes it can proffer contradictory evidence suggesting that some kids may benefit from properly supervised platform use," Barrett said, noting that this kind of lawsuit often aims for a settlement — not a win in court.

A settlement could force Meta to agree to changes that would mitigate some of the harms that the lawsuit points to. While the attorneys general opted to target one social media company specifically, they might be seeking to make an example out of Meta here that could reverberate through the industry.

"It's possible that if they reach a settlement under which Meta agrees to change certain policies for the benefit of young users, the AGs will turn to the other companies and demand that they match Meta's concessions, with the threat of being sued if the other companies don't get with the program," Barrett said.

Ultimately, the optics of a long battle between the social media giant and a bipartisan coalition comprised of most U.S. states over children's safety might be too much for Meta to bear.

"... One of the few things that Republicans and Democrats can agree on these days is that they would like to protect kids from the dark side of social media," Barrett said.