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Florida AG Moody targets Meta claiming manipulation of children


TALLAHASSEE — Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody on Tuesday filed a federal lawsuit alleging the parent company of Facebook and Instagram uses "manipulative" features to keep minors hooked on the social-media platforms.

Moody’s lawsuit came on the same day that 33 states filed a similar lawsuit in California against the company, Meta, which defended itself by saying it has tools to protect minors who use the platforms. The company also pointed to “the complexity of mental health” and various challenges that teens face outside of concerns related to social media.

Moody’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. district court in Tampa, alleges that Meta’s platforms “cause serious harm to children, parents and the community at large,” by using algorithms and other features designed to maximize the time minors spend on the apps.

“We have been investigating for years the intentional development of online social media to addict children, to get them online, keep them online and then profit from that,” Moody said in an interview with The News Service of Florida.

The 38-page lawsuit contends that Meta has violated a law known as the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, which prohibits “unfair methods of competition, unconscionable acts or practices, and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce.” The lawsuit also alleges the company violated the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

Moody’s office is seeking an injunction against Meta to prevent future violations of the state and federal laws and to award civil penalties and attorney fees for “willful violations” of the Florida law.

The lawsuit lists various features that Moody’s office argues are designed to “hijack the attention of its (Meta’s) users, barrage them with advertisements, and relentlessly mine their interactions for monetizable data.”

For example, the lawsuit points to an “infinite scroll” design and auto-play features that attorneys for Moody asserted are particularly harmful to young people.

“The infinite scroll format makes it difficult for young users to disengage, because there is no natural end point for the display of new information,” the lawsuit said.

In addition to arguing that Meta has intentionally made social media addicting, the lawsuit alleges the company has deceptively downplayed negative impacts to mental health of teens and other young people.

The lawsuit cites a U.S. surgeon general’s advisory titled “Social Media and Youth Mental Health.”

“Children and adolescents on social media are commonly exposed to extreme, inappropriate, and harmful content, and those who spend more than three hours a day on social media face double the risk of poor mental health including experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety,” a summary of the advisory said.

Another part of the lawsuit alleges “ineffective age gating” practices on Meta platforms that do not prevent users younger than 13 from creating and using social media accounts.

The 33 other states, meanwhile, joined together in a lawsuit filed in the federal Northern District of California.

“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,” the multi-state lawsuit said.

In a statement provided to the News Service, Meta pushed back on the allegations in both lawsuits.

“We share 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,” the statement said.

“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,” the statement said.

The company, for example, cited its terms of service, which it said prohibits users under 13 from using Instagram. It also described how it restricts ads for teens and contended that research on negative impacts of social media on teens’ mental health is “not conclusive” and pointed to positive impacts that social media can have on young peoples’ lives.

“While we share the attorneys general’s concern around teen mental health trends in the U.S,, it's also important to recognize the complexity of mental health and the many issues teens struggle with in their daily lives, such as growing academic pressure, substance use, rising income inequality and limited access to public mental health care,” the company said in the email.

Moody, however, said social media is “very addictive” to children.

“It’s no surprise to parents that children cannot stay off their phones. This has been shown to be very addictive to children across the United States. It’s caused mental health problems and sleep problems,” the attorney general said in the interview.

— News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.