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Vt. sues Meta over teen mental health

MONTPELIER — Vermont is suing the tech giant Meta, alleging that the company designed its social media platform Instagram to be addictive and otherwise harmful to the mental health of young users.

Standing before the Vermont Superior Court in Burlington on Tuesday afternoon, Attorney General Charity Clark told reporters that her team had filed the lawsuit against the owners of Facebook and Instagram just minutes before. Clark coordinated with more than 40 other attorneys general across the country who also sued Meta on Tuesday in state and federal court.

“We are suing to hold these corporations accountable for Instagram’s contribution to the mental health crisis that is gripping teens across the country,” she said Tuesday.

Vermont’s 117-page lawsuit alleges that Instagram has detrimental impacts on young users’ mental health, that usage correlates with social media addiction, sleep deprivation, poor self-image, feelings of loneliness and even the desire to self-harm. Citing a 2023 advisory by the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office, Clark said that excessive social media use in teens is suspected to impact neurological development in young brains, and can lead to diagnosable medical conditions such as anxiety, depression, attention deficit disorder, eating disorders, sleep disorders, addiction and suicidal ideation.

Meta knows that Instagram poses these risks to young users, Clark said on Tuesday, but has continued business as usual — and, she said, even lied to the public about the app’s safety for children — in pursuit of profits.

“In short, Instagram is addictive and harmful to youth,” Clark said. “There is a mental health epidemic happening among teens across this country. Meta is contributing to that epidemic, and we are here today to hold them accountable.”

Most of the 42 attorneys general participating in the coordinated legal effort opted to sign onto one joint lawsuit in federal court. That effort is led by the attorneys general of Colorado and Tennessee and was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District Court of California. Clark’s office was one of eight that instead opted to file their own lawsuits in state court. It also conducted its own independent investigation of Instagram’s practices in Vermont.

Clark’s office hinged its legal argument on the claim that Meta violated Vermont’s Consumer Protection Law by engaging in unfair and deceptive trade practices — namely, by lying to the public about the safety of Instagram despite knowing its adverse impacts on young users.

In a written statement responding to the lawsuits filed in Vermont and other states on Tuesday, Meta wrote that they in fact “share the attorneys general’s commitment to providing teens with safe, positive experiences online,” but were “disappointed” in their approach.

“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,” Meta wrote.

In its state court suit, the Vermont Attorney General’s Office requested a permanent injunction against Meta, prohibiting it from engaging in unfair and deceptive trade practices in Vermont.

It’s also seeking civil penalties of $10,000 for every one of Meta’s alleged violations of the Vermont Consumer Protection Act. Each violation, the office argued, should be defined as “each instance in which a Young person accessed the Instagram platform in the State of Vermont.”

Asked how many teens in Vermont are Instagram users, Assistant Attorney General Jamie Renner did not offer a specific number, but pointed to a Pew Research Center study that found in 2022 that 62% of teenagers nationwide between 13 and 17 years-old report being Instagram users.

Of course, Instagram is far from the only social media platform with a large teenage user base. The same Pew Research study found that 67% of teenagers nationwide use the short video sharing platform TikTok.

Asked if her office is pursuing similar litigation against other social media platforms, Clark cited her office’s policy of neither confirming nor denying ongoing investigations, but left the door open to speculation.

“I do think it’s already public that states are looking at TikTok, so I can acknowledge that, but I can’t say anything further,” she said.

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