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Multiple states investigating Instagram over efforts to get children active on its platform

The Instagram app icon on the screen of a mobile device
Multiple states including California have launched an investigation into Instagram’s efforts to engage young app users.
(Jenny Kane / Associated Press)

A group of U.S. state attorneys general are investigating Meta Platforms Inc.’s Instagram photo-sharing app over its efforts to engage children and young adults, taking aim at the risks the social network may pose to their mental health and well-being.

“Time and again, Mark Zuckerberg and the companies he runs have put profits over safety, but our investigation seeks to end that behavior,” New York Atty. Gen. Letitia James said Thursday in a statement. “Our coalition will not hesitate to take whatever action is necessary to protect children and young adults from the harms Instagram and other social media platforms risk to so many.”

The coalition will investigate the techniques that Meta, formerly known as Facebook, used to boost usage by young people. The company announced in September it would pause plans to create an Instagram for kids, following a series of stories in the Wall Street Journal that outlined the company’s own research on the app’s harmful effects on children, especially teenage girls.

“These accusations are false and demonstrate a deep misunderstanding of the facts,” Meta spokesperson Andy Stone said, adding that the entire technology industry faces challenges protecting young people online. “We continue to build new features to help people who might be dealing with negative social comparisons or body image issues.”

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Facebook has long emphasized the strength of its efforts to contain misinformation targeted at Latinos and Spanish speakers. A whistleblower’s leaks show employees raising alarms about the problem.

The states investigating the company include California, Texas, Nebraska, Massachusetts, Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, New Jersey and Vermont.

The investigation adds to mounting scrutiny of Meta’s handling of young users after the Journal series and, in the weeks that followed, critical stories from a consortium of media organizations based on internal documents disclosed by former Facebook product manager-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen.

Some of the documents surfaced new revelations about Instagram’s effects on body image, sleep and anxiety. According to one Facebook study, 19% of U.S. teens surveyed said Instagram made them feel worse, while 41% said it made them feel better. In the U.K., 21% said Instagram made them feel worse, and 33% said the app helped them feel better.

Instagram and Facebook don’t technically permit users younger than 13, but the company had planned to create an Instagram app specifically for preteens that would require parental permission to join, wouldn’t contain ads and would use age-appropriate policies and features.

Facebook argued that kids are lying about their age to get on Instagram anyway, so a youth-oriented product — with parental controls — would be a safer alternative and provide a legitimate bridge to eligibility for the full site.

In May, 44 attorneys general had urged Zuckerberg to drop the Instagram Youth project altogether.

“For too long, Meta has ignored the havoc that Instagram is wreaking on the mental health and well-being of our children and teens,” California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta said Tuesday in a separate statement. “Enough is enough.”

Facebook also launched Messenger Kids in 2017, a version of the company’s messaging app that allows parents to keep tabs on their children’s use.

The Instagram for kids project might have helped Facebook fix its years-long retention problem among teens and young adults on its core service, by bringing users onto its platforms earlier. The number of young adults on Facebook in the U.S. has declined 2% since 2019 and is expected to continue falling by an additional 4% over the next two years, according to the documents. Zuckerberg said last month that the company would expand its services to appeal to those ages 18 to 29.


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