US States Investigate Instagram Over Youth Risk

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Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram. Image credit: Facebook

Group of US states launches consumer protection probe into the way Instagram targets young people and affects them following whistleblower leaks

A group of US states has opened an investigation into the ways Instagram attracts and affects young people.

Led by eight states, including Massachusetts and Nebraska, the group is investigating “the techniques utilised by Meta to increase the frequency and duration of engagement by young users and the resulting harms caused by such extended engagement”.

The states said they are investigating whether Meta, formerly Facebook, violated consumer protection laws.

“When social media platforms treat our children as mere commodities to manipulate for longer screen time engagement and data extraction, it becomes imperative for state attorneys general to engage our investigative authority under our consumer protection laws,” Nebraska attorney general Doug Peterson said in a statement.

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Other attorneys general involved in coordinating the probe include California, Florida, Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee and Vermont. The full list of states involved isn’t yet public, but the state of Massachusetts said it was broad and nationwide.

Meta responded by denying that its products are unhealthy.

The probe follows the disclosure of internal documents by whistleblower Frances Haugen showing that Facebook, now Meta, was aware that Instagram had a harmful effect on younger users.

“Facebook, or Meta, has known Instagram is linked to depression, eating disorders & suicide among young people,” said Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey on Twitter. “We will identify if any laws were broken and end the abuse for good.”

She added in a statement that the company “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”.

“These social media platforms are extremely dangerous and have been proven to cause both physical and mental harm in young people,” said New York attorney general Letitia James.

Political pressure

Facebook and Instagram parent company Meta, which changed its name last month after a series of scandals, said the accusations were “false” and based on a “misunderstanding of the facts”.

The company said it “led the industry” in combating bullying and supporting young people.

Documents disclosed by Haugen suggested Meta knew of the problems Instagram was causing and failed to fix the issue.

“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” said one slide from 2019, summarising internal research.

Instagram said in September it would cancel a product aimed at children, after Massachusetts and 43 other states wrote to the company asking them to scrap the idea.

At the time Instagram head Adam Mosseri said the matter would be better addressed by lawmakers than by attorneys general, adding that “there are things governments could do to help that are more helpful than writing a letter”.

Instagram, like other platforms, requires users to be over 13, but the company has said it knows some users are younger.

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