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Coalition of state attorneys general opens investigation into Instagram’s impact on children and teens

A bipartisan coalition of state attorneys general is investigating whether Meta, which operates Instagram and Facebook, violated consumer protection laws. (Damian Dovarganesd/AP)
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A bipartisan coalition of state attorneys general on Thursday announced an investigation into Meta, focusing on whether the parent company of Instagram and Facebook violated consumer protection laws by promoting the app and other social networking products to children and teens.

The probe, announced in a news release by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (D), follows reports that the company’s internal research suggested that its products negatively impact the mental health of young people, especially teen girls. It highlights ballooning regulatory scrutiny of the tech giant, which is already the target of a federal antitrust lawsuit.

The attorneys general say the investigation focuses on the techniques the social networking giant uses to increase the frequency and duration of engagement by young users, as well as the harms that may be caused by this continued interaction.

“Facebook, now Meta, has failed to protect young people on its platforms and instead chose to ignore or, in some cases, double-down on known manipulations that pose a real threat to physical and mental health — exploiting children in the interest of profit,” Healey said in the news release. “Meta can no longer ignore the threat that social media can pose to children for the benefit of their bottom line.”

California, Florida, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Jersey, Tennessee and Vermont are co-leading the investigation. New York and D.C. also confirmed their participation; the total number of states involved is unclear. D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine has also opened an independent investigation into what Facebook knew about Instagram’s effects on children, said Abigail McDonough, a spokeswoman in his office.

Meta spokesman Andy Stone said the state attorneys general’s allegations are “false and demonstrate a deep misunderstanding of the facts.” He said the company is working on developing parental supervision controls and “exploring ways to provide even more age-appropriate experiences for teens by default.”

The internal research of Instagram’s negative impact on children and teens’ mental health was first reported by the Wall Street Journal. The social network has faced increased regulatory scrutiny in the fallout of revelations from whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former employee who exposed a trove of internal company documents, known as the Facebook Papers.

Facebook whistleblower eyes state AGs, expanding regulatory threat beyond Washington

State attorneys general are increasingly playing a formidable role in challenging the business practices of tech giants. Advocates for tech regulation have frequently compared their efforts to the crackdown on Big Tobacco, where states played a critical role in regulating the industry’s practices.

Last month, Haugen’s lawyers told The Washington Post that they had shared some of the internal documents that she had gathered with several of the states involved in this probe. On Tuesday, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost filed a lawsuit against Meta, alleging that company executives repeatedly made false claims about the safety of its platform and the efforts it was making to protect users.

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong and more than a dozen other Democratic state attorneys general sent a letter to the social network, demanding more information about the company’s handling of vaccine misinformation.

Ohio attorney general sues Meta over Facebook Papers revelations

In Washington, the Facebook Papers have prompted a series of hearings about tech regulations, putting pressure on lawmakers to update decades-old laws protecting children online. Haugen also made disclosures to the Securities and Exchange Commission, alleging that the company misled investors about its investments in safety. Some lawmakers have also called on the Federal Trade Commission to open a probe into the documents.