New York is among dozens of states suing Meta, the...

New York is among dozens of states suing Meta, the owner of Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms, for contributing to the youth mental health crisis. Credit: AP/Michael Dwyer

New York and dozens of other states on Tuesday sued Meta Platforms Inc., the company that runs Instagram and Facebook, alleging it created highly addictive features on its social media sites that have negatively affected young people's mental health.

The lawsuit, filed by 33 states in federal court in California, says the San Francisco technology company routinely collects data on children under 13 without their parents’ consent, a violation of federal law. In addition to the federal suit, nine attorneys general are filing suits in their own states.

The lawsuit alleges Meta's business model capitalizes on children's time and attention with manipulative and harmful technology. The complaint says Meta "deployed harmful and psychologically manipulative product features to induce young users’ compulsive and extended platform use." 

“Kids and teenagers are suffering from record levels of poor mental health and social media companies like Meta are to blame,” New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement. "Meta has profited from children’s pain by intentionally designing its platforms with manipulative features that make children addicted to their platforms while lowering their self-esteem."

Meta, also the owner of WhatsApp and Messenger, insisted their platforms are safe. They argued that social media lets people connect and support one another, and cautioned that a number of factors contribute to a person's mental health.

“We share the attorneys general’s commitment to providing teens with safe, positive experiences online, and have already introduced over 30 tools to support teens and their families," a Meta spokesperson said in a statement. "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.”

Long Island educators and mental health professionals described a crisis of students constantly rating their bodies and self-worth against others based on the content of their social media feeds.

Danielle Smith, a Jericho High School psychologist, said her colleagues refer to the adolescents' developing brains as "Ferraris with bad brakes." 

"The part of their brain that’s responsible for all aspects of emotional regulation, organization, and planning and impulse control is not fully fused yet," Smith said.

Thea Gallagher, associate professor and clinical psychologist at NYU Langone Health, said the suit reflects "a call to action of more ethical guidelines for how the algorithms are used, especially with younger kids."

Experts said while adults know to stop using social media when they feel overwhelmed, children often don't.

Scott Krakower, a child psychiatrist at Northwell Health Zucker Hillside Hospital who specializes in screen addiction, said the apps are "highly addicting."

"Some of the studies show that obsessive stimulation can be very potent, almost a substance abuse to the brain," Krakower said. "You can really be glued onto the screen and be reinforced quickly, and you want to go back again.”

Michael Hynes, superintendent of the Port Washington district, said: "These little micro-dopamine hits over time become incredibly addictive in these developing brains, and it's almost a lose-lose for these youngsters."

Jeffrey Reynolds, CEO of Family & Children's Association in Garden City, said if Meta is forced to pay penalties to the states, the money should go to mental health programs for youth, education about responsible social media use and funding for anti-bullying programs.   

“There’s an old adage that if you make a mess you help clean it up," Reynolds said.

Dr. Saurabh Gupta of Stony Brook Medicine cautioned not to categorize social media as all good or all bad.

He said he works with patients on tolerating social media posts so they become resilient when they see content that makes them anxious or depressed.

“Rather than developing this total risk-averse strategy ... I'm telling them this is going to be happening and you might as well develop healthy and responsible ways to use this technology, which has the potential to be good," he said.

Kelly Whitney-Rivera, director of guidance at the Valley Stream Central High School District, said social media is destructive.

Kids are "at a time in their life where they're trying to be a star of their own fairy tale, this platform gives them a great space to make it their own horror story," she said. "Rather than being a hero, they're made out to be the joke of the show.” 

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