In the wake of strong evidence pointing to the link between the declining mental health of young people and the rise of addictive social media sites, 41 state attorneys general have filed suit against Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, for manipulative business practices that they say intentionally target kids in order to ensnare them in social media addiction.
In October, 41 states and the District of Columbia filed litigation against Meta as reports of record high levels of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and suicide, continue to surface. Studies have shown that American teenagers have experienced a significant rise in depression over the last two decades, as the share of teens experiencing major depressive episodes steadily rose from 7.9% in 2006 to 14.4% in 2018. Since then, the persistent increase has continued unabated. In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that three out of five teenage girls felt depression and one in three had seriously considered suicide in 2021.
As psychologists such as Jean Twenge have observed, the rapid increase in youth mental health issues has dovetailed almost exactly with the ubiquitous rise of smartphones and social media apps. Twenge’s most recent book “Generations” details how Generation Z’s skyrocketing use of social media directly correlates with less time spent in person with friends, less sleep, and increased loneliness.
The issue has become so alarming to health officials that in May, the U.S. Surgeon General released an unprecedented advisory warning that social media use poses a “profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.”
As a result, public officials have decided that studies and advisories are not enough — they believe that the architects of social media themselves must claim some amount of responsibility for the crisis. On Tuesday, Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey (R) joined “Washington Watch with Tony Perkins” to discuss the litigation he has filed against Meta.
“We’ve exposed the manipulative practices of the Meta platform that designed features in order to make kids addicted,” he contended. “And lo and behold, screen time is bad for kids. And I think one of the problems here is that Meta has hidden their head in the sand and refused to obtain data or scientific studies to measure the negative harmful impacts on kids, and deprived the public of access to that information. … [T]hey were manipulating their platform[s] to make kids more addicted, [and] they were doing it to obtain personal information to maximize their profits. And it’s putting kids at risk.”
Bailey went on to argue that Meta’s actions specifically violated his state’s consumer protection laws.
“The mental and emotional impact of the addictive features of Big Tech social media platforms, specifically Meta in this instance, have been immediately impactful on children in a harmful way, and it violates the consumer protection laws of the state of Missouri,” he asserted. “[T]he platform is depriving parents of access to information necessary upon which to make good decisions about the health and safety of their children when they’re there, fraudulently attempting to make the kids addicted to the platform that violates the law, and we’re going to hold them accountable.”
Bailey further observed that the litigation showcases a rare example of bipartisanship, in which a coalition of 41 Republican and Democrat state AGs are coming together to put pressure on Meta for allegedly harming the mental health of children.
“[C]hild safety should be a bipartisan issue,” he underscored. “I’m proud to have joined with like-minded colleagues in other states that want to put the safety of children first and hold wrongdoers in the Big Tech social media world accountable. And certainly we’ve seen a repeated pattern of behavior from Meta, not only to abuse children in this context and to deprive the public of access to information, but to violate our constitutional rights to free speech by acquiescing to government censorship demands. … [T]his is a full court press, all hands on deck approach to make sure we’re holding this monolithic monopoly accountable.”
The Missouri attorney general also highlighted specific goals that the state litigation seeks, including monetary compensation for victims. “We … think there should be some monetary compensation for the victims,” he maintained. “We’ve got to build a fund to study this problem, figure out how bad it is, the negative emotional and mental impacts on kids, and make sure that they’re treated and taken care of in the aftermath of this fraudulent behavior.”
Bailey concluded by pointing out the parallels in the social media case with the evidence that was uncovered in the 1990s of tobacco companies attempting to hide evidence of the addictive nature of their products. “I think history will look back on this moment in time and celebrate that we took a stand to protect children against this pernicious behavior very quickly.”
Dan Hart is senior editor at The Washington Stand.
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