Meta accused of engineering social media platforms to hook kids

Meta accused of engineering social media platforms to hook kids


The company that owns Facebook and Instagram has for years relied on both social media platforms to keep children and teenagers engaged for as long as possible in order to gather personal data and sell it to advertisers, a group of state prosecutors alleged in a recently unsealed complaint.

Attorneys general in 33 states filed a federal lawsuit against Meta in October, although the details at the time were not immediately released. But the complaint, unsealed Wednesday, unveils more specifics, such as allegations from the 
state prosecutors that Meta harmed young users on Facebook and Instagram through the use of highly manipulative algorithms and technological tools. 

These techniques were allegedly deliberately deployed by Meta to attract and sustain engagement, as it collected personal information for advertisers, including from children without parental consent — which is required by law, according to the lawsuit.

Attorneys general from states ranging from California to Wisconsin are part of the lawsuit. They allege compulsive use of Facebook or IG by teens and children can cause physical and mental harm, according to the 233-page complaint. 

State prosecutors built their case, in part, using snippets of emails, earnings call transcripts and other internal communications — all of which suggest the extreme value of young users’ personal information and time to company profits. 

In an emailed statement from October when the joint suit was filed, Meta said it was disappointed by the route taken by the attorneys general.

Meta is determined to provide teens with “safe, positive experiences online, and have already introduced over 30 tools to support teens and their families,” the company said at the time.

In a Monday statement, a Meta spokesperson said, “The complaint mischaracterizes our work using selective quotes and cherry-picked documents.”

“Time spent”

State prosecutors allege in the complaint that Meta’s business strategy for more growth and profit is based on so-called “time spent,” which refers to how long the website can keep users engaged in posts, pictures, videos and other content. The longer a user stays on Facebook or IG, the more personal data the platform can collect, according to the complaint. 

“Increasing the time spent on Meta’s platforms increases the effective delivery of targeted ads — a pivotal factor in Meta’s ability to generate revenue,” the complaint reads. 

One of the ways Meta keeps a user on its social media platforms is deploying a special technology called “recommendation algorithms,” the complaint alleges.

“These algorithms do not promote any specific message by Meta,” the lawsuit claims. “Rather, the algorithms function on a user-by-user basis, detecting the material each individual is likely to engage with and then increasingly displaying similar material to maximize the time spent and user data collected on the platforms.”

Users under 13

Meta collects personal data on all Facebook and Instagram users, including those who are under the age of consent, state prosecutors allege. The tech giant collects the data even though the platforms did not get parental consent from users who are 13 or younger, the lawsuit claims.

Collecting the data violates the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule of 1998, prosecutors allege. 

Meta said in a statement that no one under 13 is allowed to have an account on Instagram, and that the company deletes accounts from underage users whenever it finds them. 

“However, verifying the age of people online is a complex industry challenge,” the company said. “Many people — particularly those under the age of 13 — don’t have an ID, for example. That’s why Meta is supporting federal legislation that requires app stores to get parents’ approval whenever their teens under 16 download apps.”

The issue of how Meta platforms impact young children became front and center in 2021 when Meta employee-turned whistleblower Frances Haugen shared documents from internal company research. In an interview with CBS News’ Scott Pelley, Haugen noted data indicating Instagram worsens suicidal thoughts and eating disorders for certain teenage girls. 

“Meta knows that what it is doing is bad for kids — period,” California Attorney General Rob Bonta alleged in a statement Monday. “Thanks to our unredacted federal complaint, it is now there in black and white, and it is damning.”