WASHINGTON (October 31, 2023)—Maryland, the District of Columbia and 40 other states are suing Meta alleging that its platforms cause harm to children by building addictive features, Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown announced Tuesday.
"Our country is facing a youth mental health crisis fueled by young people's extensive and compulsive use of, and reliance on, social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram," Brown said at a press conference outside Hampstead Hill Academy, a Baltimore public school. "This has placed an entire generation of young people in jeopardy."
Maryland and 32 other states are filing a joint lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, and the District of Columbia and eight other states are filing separate complaints in federal, state or local courts.
The scope of the legal claims may vary, but all are expected to assert that Meta used harmful and manipulative tactics purposefully to keep children on its platforms.
In 2021, a bipartisan coalition of state attorneys general announced an investigation into Meta, focusing on whether the parent company of Instagram and Facebook violated consumer protection laws by promoting the sites' apps to children and teens.
"Based on the information obtained during that investigation, we allege that Meta's actions have violated the federal Children's Online Privacy Protection Act," Brown said.
Nationwide, states have seen a surging youth mental health crisis: the number of children ages 3 to 17 who experienced anxiety or depression from 9.4% in 2016 to 11.8% in 2020—a 25% increase, according to the National Institute of Health. Maryland ranked 19th in the nation for overall child well-being.
"Just like Big Tobacco did a generation ago, Meta has chosen to maximize its profits at the expense of public health, specifically the health of our children," Brown charged.
In the suit Maryland joined, the attorneys general allege that "Meta has harnessed powerful and unprecedented technologies to entice, engage, and ultimately ensnare youth and teens."
"Its motive is profit, and in seeking to maximize its financial gains, Meta has repeatedly misled the public about the substantial dangers of its Social Media Platforms. It has concealed the ways in which these Platforms exploit and manipulate its most vulnerable consumers: teenagers and children. And it has ignored the sweeping damage these Platforms have caused to the mental and physical health of our nation's youth," the filing states.
Meta said in a statement that it agreed with "the attorneys general's commitment to providing teens with safe, positive experiences online, and have already introduced over 30 tools to support teens and their families."
But Meta added: "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."
Brown was joined by Hampstead Hill Academy Principal Matthew Hornbeck, who said that over the 20 years he has been at the school he has seen the impact the rise in social media use has had on his students. Hornbeck described measures to curb phone use at Hampstead Hill, but stressed they were "merely a workaround."
"(Social media) hijacks normal, healthy thinking," Hornbeck said. "It sucks up so much time and keeps the user wanting more and more. It's not an overstatement to say it can steal big chunks of a childhood."
"The urge to check your phone is stronger than any consequence we have at school," he said.
Treeme Cannizzaro, an 8th grade student at Hampstead Hill, said at the press conference that limiting phone use in schools does not address the impact social media has on mental health when students are not at school.
"My friends and I can't help but get on our phones to see what we've missed," Cannizzaro said. "Limiting access to social media has had a positive impact on my mental health during the school day, and I hope that social media companies can find more ways to decrease the anxiety and depression my friends and I feel from social interactions online."
In May, the Federal Trade Commission proposed barring Meta from monetizing the data it collects for underage users.
Also in May, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory stating that, although there are some benefits, social media use presents a "profound risk of harm" for children and called for further research into social media's impact on youth mental health.
"Children are exposed to harmful content on social media, ranging from violent and sexual content, to bullying and harassment," Murthy said in a statement. "And for too many children, social media use is compromising their sleep and valuable in-person time with family and friends."
Efforts to regulate social media's impact on social media have gained traction this year, but also have faced challenges in court. Federal judges blocked newly-passed children's safety laws in California and Arkansas.