Attorney General Brian Schwalb Sues Meta for Endangering Youth Through Addictive Social Media Platforms

Lawsuit Argues that Meta Has Caused Long-Lasting Psychological Damage to Children Through Exploitative Features on Instagram & Facebook and Deceived the Public About Risks 

WASHINGTON, DC—Attorney General Brian L. Schwalb today announced a lawsuit against Meta Platforms, Inc. (Meta) alleging that the company knowingly designed Instagram and its other social media platforms with features that lure in and addict children and cause harm to their mental, emotional, and physical health. At the same time, Meta has falsely assured the public that these features are safe for young users, despite its own internal research showing they’re not.

The Office of the Attorney General’s (OAG) lawsuit, filed in the DC Superior Court, is part of a bipartisan coalition of 42 attorneys general across the country who filed lawsuits today making similar claims against Meta in federal and state courts.

“Children are particularly susceptible to addictive technologies, and Meta has exploited these vulnerabilities, putting its quest for advertising revenue over the psychological and emotional well-being of young people,” said AG Schwalb. “Despite knowing that its products can cause children significant and long-term psychological harms, Meta has downplayed the risks its products pose and has repeatedly and deceptively claimed its products are safe for young users. This lawsuit seeks to end Meta’s exploitation of young people and remedy the damage it has done to an entire generation.”

"We've conducted a great deal of qualitative interviews with youth over the past few years, and young people of all ages, races, and household income have expressed challenges with their social/emotional health and mental health,” said Kimberly Perry, Executive Director of DC Action. “While the root causes are complex, we cannot ignore the exhaustive impacts that social media plays on the emotional well-being of our children and youth. We applaud the Office of the Attorney General for their leadership in recognizing the potential harm, and for taking on corporations like Meta who too often put profit over people, particularly our young people. Social media platforms have an obligation to act responsibly and must ensure proper guardrails are in place to protect children and youth.

“It is the duty of school social workers to advocate for the mental health and well-being of students, and we have increasingly observed significant and alarming effects of social media on the physical health (particularly sleep habits), mood and self-esteem, in-person communication and social skills, and peer conflicts of DC youth,” said Allie Perez, LICSW, President of the School Social Work Association of Washington DC. “We applaud the Office of the Attorney General for taking steps to protect DC youth as consumers of social media–youth whose brains are still developing the judgment and impulse control to be able to moderate their own social media use to a healthy level and who are still recovering socially from the isolation of the pandemic.”

“While social media started as a way to connect and share information, research has now proven it can have a devastating impact on children and adolescents’ mental health. Youth with access to social media are at increased risk for anxiety, depression, addictive behavior, and sleep disruption,” said Dr. Laura Schaffner Gray, Pediatric Psychologist at Children’s National Hospital. “Families, particularly parents, need to be aware of these risks and equip themselves with knowledge of how to enact effective limitations and education to protect their kids. We must tackle the pediatric mental health crisis from all angles.”

The steep increase in young people across the country reporting serious mental health issues, including suicidal ideation, anxiety, and depression, has coincided with the drastic growth of social media use. In 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory stating that “the current body of evidence indicates that while social media may have some benefits for young people and adolescents, there are ample indicators that social media can have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.”

OAG’s complaint alleges that Meta has:

  • Profited by purposely making its platforms addictive to children and teens, designing features and algorithms to maximize user engagement—and therefore its own profits from advertising revenue—at the expense of young people’s health.
    • Meta has implemented features like infinite scroll and near-constant alerts with the goal of hooking young users. These manipulative tactics continually lure teens back onto the platform. As Aza Raskin, the original developer of the infinite scroll concept, noted about the feature’s addictive qualities: “If you don’t give your brain time to catch up with your impulses, . . . you just keep scrolling.”
  • Deceived the public, claiming that its platforms are safe for young users while knowing that the platforms’ addictive features harm young people’s physical and mental health and while actively concealing the extent of the psychological and health damage suffered by young, addicted users.

These actions, the complaint alleges, violate the District’s Consumer Protection Procedures Act (CPPA), which prohibits a wide variety of unfair and deceptive business practices. Under the CPPA, it is illegal for businesses to engage in conduct that is unfair to consumers, to make misrepresentations about products or services, and to provide products or services that violate other District laws. The complaint seeks injunctive and monetary relief to rectify the harms caused by Meta’s social media platforms.

The full complaint is available here.

This matter is being litigated by Office of Consumer Protection Director Adam Teitelbaum, Deputy Director Kevin Vermillion, and Assistant Attorneys General Jorge Bonilla Lopez and Lydia Mendez.

Mental Health Trends Among District Youth
Per the Office of the State Superintendent of Education’s (OSSE) report on the District of Columbia’s 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey:

  • Almost half (47.7%) of the District’s high school girls self-reported episodes of psychological distress, including persistently feeling sad or hopeless.
  • Self-reports of suicidal thoughts, plans, or attempts have increased among young people in the District since 2007 and have remained consistently high.
  • Over a quarter (28%) of all middle school students and over a third (36.9%) of all middle school girls reported seriously considering attempting suicide.

Per OSSE’s report, in 2021:

  • Over 70% of all District high school students, including 74% of high school girls, reported spending more than three hours of their day on screen time. 
  • Over two thirds (67.5%) of District middle school students report spending three or more hours on screens per day.
  • Nearly three-quarters (73.6%) of District teens reported getting fewer than eight hours of sleep on an average school night.

How to Report Illegal or Unfair Business Practices
To report unfair business practices, scams, or fraud, you can contact OAG by:   

Visit OAG’s website to learn more about the office’s work to protect DC consumers.