Open secret! Meta Platforms faces backlash over millions of underage users active on Instagram

In a newly unsealed legal complaint, 33 states allege that Meta Platforms, the parent company of Instagram, Facebook and others, knowingly allowed millions of users under the age of 13 on its platform while only disabling a bunch of the reported accounts. The complaint accuses Meta of violating federal children’s privacy laws by collecting their personal information, such as locations and email addresses, without parental consent. The court filing asserts that within Meta, the awareness of underage users is an “open secret,” meticulously documented and shielded from public disclosure. The company could potentially face significant civil penalties, amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars, if the allegations are proven.

Legal Battle and Company Response

These privacy charges are part of a broader federal lawsuit filed by 34 states, including California and Colorado, accusing Meta Platforms of unfairly trapping young users on Instagram and Facebook while concealing internal studies highlighting user harm. The lawsuit aims to compel Meta to cease using features that allegedly harm young users, The New York Times reported.

In response, Meta expressed disappointment, emphasising its commitment to online teen safety and highlighting the introduction of over 30 tools to support youths and their families. The company criticised the attorneys general for not collaborating with the industry to establish clear, age-appropriate standards for teen app usage.

The legal scrutiny intensified after former Meta employee Frances Haugen, a whistleblower, disclosed internal documents in late 2021. Haugen’s revelations included claims that the company knowingly targeted vulnerable young users to enhance profits. Internal studies at Instagram, presented by Haugen to Congress, indicated that many adolescent girls using the platform experienced depression and anxiety related to body-image issues.

Meta, along with Snap, TikTok, and Google, is currently facing numerous lawsuits linking their platforms to anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and sleeplessness in adolescents and young adults. The companies argue against the lawsuits, contending that they improperly seek to regulate content, according to a Bloomberg report.

Growing pressure from lawmakers to shield young users from harmful content has led to increased interest in technologies like age estimation for age verification. However, privacy groups raise concerns about the untested nature of such technologies and data security issues. Laws requiring age verification on social media and adult websites have faced First Amendment challenges in courts.


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