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Meta sued by states claiming Instagram and Facebook fueled youth mental health crisis

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Forty-one states are suing Meta for allegedly designing products that addict teens and worsen their mental health.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

State prosecutors say some features of Facebook and Instagram violate consumer protection and child safety laws.

MARTIN: NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn is with us now to tell us more about this. Good morning, Bobby.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: OK, tell us about the case that the states are making.

ALLYN: Sure. The case boils down to this. State prosecutors say Meta created something they're calling dopamine-manipulating features. And they're features everyone who uses social media know very well, right? The algorithms that decide what we see when we log on to Facebook and Instagram, the ability to like a post, being able to scroll endlessly without limits - these features got teens hooked. And the states say Meta knew that teens' self-esteem would suffer once they got addicted to Facebook and Instagram.

Now, you might be thinking, OK, but how is that against the law? And the states say deliberately designing a product in a way that, you know, violates consumer protection laws. Some observers are likening these suits to the lawsuits of the 1990s against Big Tobacco. I talked to Jean Twenge about this. She's a professor of psychology at San Diego State University. And she says she hopes these lawsuits force Meta to change.

JEAN TWENGE: These days, when we see people smoking, they're in the small minority and we think, what are they doing? Maybe we'll think that way in the future about 12-year-olds and 14-year-olds being on social media.

MARTIN: And what's Meta's response?

ALLYN: Yeah, Meta issued a statement saying it shares the concern of state prosecutors. Like them, they want teens on Facebook and Instagram to be safe. But, you know, Meta hasn't directly addressed the substance of these suits. Legal experts are expecting Meta to invoke something called Section 230. Sounds very technical, but it's a decades-old federal law that protects tech companies from lawsuits over what users post on their sites. And for years, the law made it nearly impossible to win a successful civil lawsuit against a tech company.

But this is starting to change. Increasingly, there is this novel legal tactic that is getting around Section 230, and it involves suing companies over, essentially, shoddy design, looking at social media almost as a product that should have been recalled because it was harmful. And that is similar to what the states are doing here.

MARTIN: As briefly as you can, say more about what this research does say about social media's effect on teen mental health.

ALLYN: Yeah. You know, Michel, this has sparked a lot of debate. But I talked to Twenge at San Diego State University about it since she herself has been a researcher on some really large studies that have looked at teens nationwide. In fact, some of her work is cited by prosecutors in these lawsuits. And she says adolescents are in the midst of a mental health crisis. Consider this fact. Between 2011 and 2021, teen depression has doubled. And while there's many ways to explain this, Twenge says the obvious one to her is social media.

TWENGE: No other explanation really fits for why we have a doubling in teen depression at a time when the economy was doing well and crime was going down and almost every other indicator for teens was getting better, but they were spending a lot more time on social media, a lot less time with each other face to face and less time sleeping.

ALLYN: And now courts will decide whether Meta ignoring similar research constitutes breaking the law or just business as usual.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Bobby Allyn. Bobby, thank you.

ALLYN: Thanks, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.