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Wisconsin Joins Lawsuit Accusing Meta of Harming Children's Mental Health

The state of Wisconsin joined a lawsuit in October against Meta, along with 33 other states, alleging that the company’s apps harm children’s mental health. Meta Platforms Inc., formerly known as Facebook, is a technology company that has created applications that have found massive success, such as Instagram and Facebook, which have three billion and 1.35 billion active users, respectively. But the company has also found itself in hot water multiple times.

On Tuesday, Oct. 24, Wisconsin Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul joined forces with a bipartisan group of attorneys general from multiple states in a legal action filed in federal court in California. The lawsuit claims that Meta has deployed addictive features that negatively impact the mental health of young individuals, and contribute to the mental health crisis among the nation's youth. Additionally, the lawsuit says that Meta has violated federal law by regularly collecting data from children under the age of 13 without obtaining their parents' consent.

In a statement, Kaul expressed the importance of keeping children safe online. He explained, “Adequate protections should be in place to protect kids from harms associated with social media, and parents must receive accurate information about potential dangers to their kids.”

The formal complaint stated, “Meta has harnessed powerful and unprecedented technologies to entice, engage, and ultimately ensnare youth and teens.” It went on to explain that the company’s motive is to make the most profit while deceiving the general public about the potential dangers of its social media platforms, especially the dangers towards vulnerable teens and children. The lawsuit continues alleging that Meta’s business practices violate the Wisconsin Deceptive Trade Practices Act and the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

At first glance, some of Meta’s business practices may seem harmless; however, it is quite the opposite. Meta apps have addictive functions like infinite scrolling, various notifications, and encouraging users to go down “rabbit holes” to increase their engagement. In the lawsuit, the states alleged that although Meta knew that these functions could cause harm to both the mental and physical health of youth, they did not disclose nor attempt to reduce the harm.

In response to the lawsuit, Liza Crenshaw, a spokesperson for Meta, said that the company has the same goal as the attorneys general: to give teenagers a safe and positive online experience. Crenshaw shared that they were “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 has already taken steps to accomplish their goal by introducing over 30 tools to help teenagers and their families. These features include age verification technology and in-app resources among other changes made to help younger users and parents. It is also important to note that most social media companies ban children under 13 years old from signing up for their sites to comply with federal regulations. However, this ban is mostly ineffective as children can easily bypass it, with and without their parents' consent.

The extensive lawsuit arises from an inquiry led by a bipartisan group of attorneys general representing states such as California, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Vermont. This legal action stems from investigative reports, initially published by The Wall Street Journal in the fall of 2021. The reports, which were based on Meta's internal research, revealed the company was aware of the adverse effects of Instagram on the mental health and body image of teenagers, particularly girls. Key findings from the internal study include about 14% of teenage girls stating that Instagram increases thoughts of suicide, and 17% stating that it worsens eating disorders. According to the Pew Research Center, up to 95% of youth aged 13 to 17 in the U.S. use a social media platform, and over one-third claim to use social media "almost constantly."

Earlier this year in Wisconsin, lawmakers proposed legislation that includes various measures mandating parental consent for minors to utilize social media. As well as, restricting individuals under 18 from accessing social media between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., requiring parental approval for minors to establish a social media account, and affording parents complete access to their child's account.

[Sources: Wisconsin State Journal]

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