45 States Hammer Meta Over Child Safety Lapses

Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters
Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

Bipartisan rage against TikTok has been a boon for the social media giant’s competitors, who have largely escaped public scrutiny over the past year. For Meta, the parent company of Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook, that respite may be ending. The firm faces lawsuits from attorneys general in 45 states, plus Washington, D.C., who have accused it of causing harm to young users.

The flurry of lawsuits, which The New York Times summarized in a long piece on Saturday, mirrors litigation against tobacco companies several decades ago. The suits claim that Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has failed to remedy safety lapses and has rejected his own staff members’ requests for more manpower to address issues.

“A lot of these decisions ultimately landed on Mr. Zuckerberg’s desk,” Raúl Torrez, attorney general of New Mexico, told the Times. “He needs to be asked explicitly, and held to account explicitly, for the decisions that he’s made.”

As one example of Zuckerberg’s decision-making, executive David Ginsberg emailed him in April 2019 citing concern about “areas of problematic use/addiction and teens,” according to court records. He wanted to conduct research to “reduce loneliness and compulsive use,” but was told there weren’t resources available for his project.

Mary Rodee, the mother of a teenager who died by suicide in 2021 after being victimized by a sexual predator on Facebook, blasted Meta to the Times. “They preach that they have safety protections, but not the right ones,” she said. Rodee filed a lawsuit against Meta earlier this year. She added that Meta “never responded to the reports she submitted through automated channels on the site about her son’s death,” the Times wrote. “It’s pretty unfathomable,” she said.

The U.S. surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, is also calling for regulations that would place warning labels on social media sites, akin to labels on cigarette packs.

“The mental health crisis among young people is an emergency—and social media has emerged as an important contributor,” he wrote in an op-ed last week. “Adolescents who spend more than three hours a day on social media face double the risk of anxiety and depression symptoms, and the average daily use in this age group, as of the summer of 2023, was 4.8 hours.”

Some members of Congress are pushing to enact the Kids Online Safety Act, which would restrict social media firms’ ability to use addictive techniques like push notifications on underage users.

Meta has pushed back on its characterization in the lawsuits and the press. “We want to reassure every parent that we have their interests at heart in the work we’re doing to help provide teens with safe experiences online,” said spokeswoman Liza Crenshaw. She argued that the legal filings “mischaracterize our work using selective quotes and cherry-picked documents.”

Still, some evidence in the complaints is at a minimum highly unflattering. One Meta staffer admitted in a 2016 email that the “overall company goal is total teen time spent,” according to filings in Tennessee.

Court records also revealed communications executive Nick Clegg’s critical comments about Mark Zuckerberg to some members of his team.

“If I was him, I wouldn’t want to be asked ‘while your company was being accused of aiding and abetting teenage suicide, why was your only public pronouncement a post about surfing?’” Clegg wrote.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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