In 2019, Instagram’s top executive, Adam Mosseri, went on television to describe how the Meta-owned social media app has “rethought the entire experience” to prioritize users’ “well-being” above all else. Today, a bipartisan group of attorneys general representing 42 U.S. states alleged in a series of lawsuits that Mosseri’s comments were part of a decades-long pattern of deception by Meta that claimed Instagram and Facebook were safe while in reality harming young people.
The lawsuits allege that Meta put user engagement ahead of user safety. “Despite overwhelming internal research, independent expert analysis and publicly available data that its social media platforms are harming young users, Meta still refuses to stop using known harmful features – and has instead redoubled its efforts to misrepresent the impact “To portray, hide and downplay.” “These characteristics impact the mental and physical health of young users,” claims the Main complaint, led by Colorado and Tennessee. About 22 million teenagers in the US use Instagram every day, it is said.
Meta spokeswoman Liza Crenshaw says the company has introduced over 30 tools such as parental controls and usage limits to support young users, who she says are also suffering from increasing academic pressure, rising income inequality and limited mental health services. “We share the Attorney General’s commitment to providing youth with safe and positive online experiences,” Crenshaw said. “We are disappointed that state attorneys general have chosen this path instead of working productively with companies across the industry to create clear, age-appropriate standards for the many apps that teens use.”
Filed in federal court in Oakland, California, where a judge is already hearing the case a similar complaint The states’ case seeks to ban Meta from continuing its alleged deceptive practices by consumers against several social media companies and force them to pay unspecified fines. The complaint lists five features that it claims are “harmful and psychologically manipulative” because they “cause young users to engage in compulsive and extensive” use of Instagram.
The states say Meta purposefully designed Instagram’s algorithms, which determine what content users see in their feeds, to make them addictive. By presenting posts in order of expected interest rather than chronological order, Meta can benefit from what psychologists call “variable reward schedules,” according to the lawsuit, turning feeds into something like a slot machine. Users are conditioned to keep coming back and scrolling endlessly in hopes of receiving effects from the neurotransmitter dopamine when they come across content they enjoy, the lawsuit says.
According to the lawsuit, Instagram researchers once found that the way the app encourages teens to compare themselves with their peers and question themselves was “more harmful to mental health” than cyberbullying. That finding became public in 2021 when former Facebook employee Frances Haugen leaked thousands of company documents, helping to expedite states’ investigations.
The like count visible in Instagram posts gives people an easy way to compare themselves with others. Instagram offers the option to hide this balance, but leaves it visible by default. “Meta could have at least hidden the like counts for young users of Instagram and Facebook, but refused to do so,” the lawsuit says.
California Attorney General Rob Bonta told reporters today that states knew Meta had internal discussions about the negative impact of the Like button but decided to keep it in place anyway. “Today we draw the line,” he says. “We must protect our children online and we will not back down from this fight.”