Attorneys general across America probing Instagram's marketing to children

Investigation in Pennsylvania focused on whether social media giant owned by Meta Platforms is violating consumer protection laws.

Updated: November 29, 2021 - 11:16pm

State attorneys generals across the country are targeting Instagram, with the top law enforcement official in Pennsylvania investigating whether the social media giant is violating consumer protection laws with its marketing to children.

“We must do more to keep our children safe online – from both predatory people and predatory companies who put them at risk,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said. "Social media companies have a responsibility to keep their users safe and disclose risks associated with their platforms.

“Our investigation will help determine whether Facebook failed in its responsibility to protect children online and will help us determine how to stop these companies from continuing to put children at risk for their own profit.”

The investigation targets the company previously known as Facebook, Meta Platforms Inc., which also owns and operates Instagram. The focus is on techniques the company employs to increase frequency and duration of engagement of young users, and how those techniques lead to harm.

Recent reports revealed internal research showed Instagram is associated with increased mental and physical health risks in young people, including depression, eating disorders and suicide.

Fifty-two attorneys general sent a letter to the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation’s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Data Security in October regarding the issue. The subcommittee held a hearing that highlighted how the company allegedly manipulates its young users.

“We are incensed by recent reports in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and other media outlets, which, if accurate, detail how Facebook has designed its algorithms to attract greater youth engagement,” the letter read. “Perhaps more disturbing is the fact that Facebook is doing all of this knowing its own internal studies show the resulting harm – increased mental distress, bullying, contemplation of suicide, and other self-harm – on a significant number of children, with a particularly negative impact on young girls.”

Facebook recently announced it would “suspend” plans to develop an Instagram platform for young children, though the attorneys general have urged the company to abandon those plans altogether.

“Facebook and other social media platforms understand that their business models necessitate increasing the amount of time that kids engage with their platforms to maximize monetization,” the letter read. “More engagement by the user equals more data to leverage for advertising, which equals greater profit.

“This prompts social media companies to design their algorithms to psychologically manipulate young users into a state of addiction to their cell phone screens. Parents and children seeking a sense of balance and well-being are forced to combat these sophisticated methods seemingly alone. This is simply not a fair fight,” the attorneys general wrote. “When our young people’s health becomes mere collateral damage of greater profits for social media companies, it is time for the government to intervene.”

The letter claimed other social media sites are also manipulating youngsters, citing reports in the Wall Street Journal that TikTok algorithms direct young users to pornographic websites.

The National Association of Attorneys General wrote a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on behalf of 44 state and territory attorneys general in May that cited numerous sobering statistics in a request for the company to abandon its plans for a youth-centered Instagram platform.

The letter cited research showing a link between social media use by young people and mental distress, suicidal ideation and issues with self-esteem and body-image dissatisfaction.

The NAAG pointed out how the data conflicted with Zuckerberg’s testimony in a March congressional hearing in which he claimed “research we’ve seen is that using social apps to connect to other people can have health benefits.”

The attorneys general argued youngsters don’t have the capacity to understand the complexities and privacy challenges that come with social media, and adults are taking advantage of the situation to exploit them.

“One report found an increase of 200% in recorded instances of the use of Instagram to target and abuse children over a six-month period in 2018, and UK police reports documented more cases of sexual grooming on Instagram than any other platform,” the NAAG wrote in May. “In 2020 alone, Facebook and Instagram reported 20 million child sexual abuse images.”