In 2019, Instagram’s top executive, Adam Mosseri, went on TV to describe how the Meta-owned social media app was “rethinking the whole experience” to prioritize the “well-being” of users above all else. Today, a bipartisan group of attorneys general representing 42 US states alleged in a series of lawsuits that Mosseri’s remarks were part of a decade-long pattern of deceit by Meta that claimed Instagram and Facebook were safe, while they in fact did young people harm.
The suits claim Meta put user engagement ahead of user safety. “Despite overwhelming internal research, independent expert analysis, and publicly available data that its social media platforms harm young users, Meta still refuses to abandon its use of known harmful features—and has instead redoubled its efforts to misrepresent, conceal, and downplay the impact of those features on young users’ mental and physical health,” alleges the main lawsuit, led by Colorado and Tennessee. About 22 million US teenagers use Instagram each day, it says.
Meta spokesperson Liza Crenshaw says the company has introduced over 30 tools, such as parental controls and usage limiters, to support young users who, she notes, also suffer from growing academic pressure, rising income inequality, and limited mental healthcare services. “We share the attorneys general’s commitment to providing teens with safe, positive experiences online,” Crenshaw says. “We’re disappointed that instead of working productively with companies across the industry to create clear, age-appropriate standards for the many apps teens use, the attorneys general have chosen this path.”
Filed in federal court in Oakland, California, where a judge is already hearing a similar lawsuit by consumers against several social media companies, the states’ case seeks to bar Meta from continuing the allegedly deceptive practices and force it to pay unspecified fines. The complaint lays out five features claimed to be “harmful and psychologically manipulative” because they “induce young users’ compulsive and extended” use of Instagram.
The states say Meta designed Instagram’s algorithms, which determine what content users see in their feeds, to expressly keep them hooked. By presenting posts in order of expected interest rather than chronologically, Meta is able to benefit from what psychologists describe as “variable reward schedules,” according to the lawsuit, that turn feeds into something like a slot machine. Users are conditioned to keep coming back and scrolling endlessly in hopes of receiving hits of the neurotransmitter dopamine when they come across content that brings them pleasure, the lawsuit claims.
According to the lawsuit, researchers working for Instagram found at one point that the way the app encourages teens to compare themselves with peers and question themselves was “more damaging to mental health” than cyberbullying. That finding became public in 2021 when former Facebook employee Frances Haugen leaked thousands of company documents and helped accelerate the states’ investigation.
The Like count visible on Instagram posts provides a ready way for people to compare themselves to others. Instagram has offered the option of hiding that tally, but has left it visible by default. “Meta could have, at a minimum, hidden Like counts for young users of Instagram and Facebook, but it declined to do so,” the lawsuit states.
California attorney general Rob Bonta told reporters today that the states know Meta had internal discussions about the negative impact of the Like button, but decided to keep it anyway. “Today we draw the line,” he says. “We must protect our children online and we will not back down from this fight.”