“Social media use can negatively affect teens, distracting them, disrupting their sleep, and exposing them to bullying, rumor spreading, unrealistic views of other people’s lives and peer pressure,” according to the Mayo Clinic. Teens and younger children accessing social media repeatedly or for long periods face heightened risks of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, social isolation, negative body image, decreased learning ability, even serious thoughts of suicide.
Social media that lures kids into excessive use must come from somewhere. Top on the list is the 800-billion-dollar multinational conglomerate, Meta Platforms, Inc. (“Meta”), owner and operator of the social media platforms Facebook and Instagram. To hold Meta accountable for social media’s damaging effects, 33 American states’ attorneys general (“Plaintiffs”) are together suing Meta in federal court for engaging in:
- Deliberately addicting children to dopamine-stimulating Internet behavior
- Failing to disclose the risks of such addiction and damage to children’s mental health
- Concealing and falsely denying the truth about such addiction and mental health harm
- Violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)
The Plaintiffs’ formal 233-page Complaint draws from authoritative sources to expose Meta’s social media mental and emotional manipulation program. The manipulation schemes depend largely upon the role of the brain neurotransmitter chemical, dopamine, in pleasure-seeking and addictive behavior. (See “Why You Can’t Always Be Happy.”)
Social Media Platforms’ Business Model
The Complaint explains how the social media systems work on the minds of users to benefit Meta. To maximize revenue, Meta’s business model focuses on increasing both the number of young users and their degree of “engagement.” Meta profits from advertising revenues. Meta converts users’ attention and engagement into revenue by gathering data about each user and targeting advertising to each user.
The more ads sold, especially to users more likely to respond to the ads, the more money Meta makes. Facebook and Instagram therefore are designed to keep users interested and using their platforms for longer times.
Addictive Social Media Features
Social media’s marketing approach aims to provide a product or service that entices people to use it often and every day. Meta’s social media employ several techniques, as described in the Complaint.
1. Validation by views and likes: People feel significant when others use and enjoy their creations. Social media platforms feed the need for significance by displaying the numbers of views, shares, and “likes” for a user’s posts. Users come back repeatedly to check on their posts’ social status counts.
2. Variable and unpredictable rewards: Research shows people are drawn to an activity when the rewards are uncertain, even random. Casino games of chance exploit that long-known fact, as slot machines, roulette, keno, and craps all deliver unpredictable wins and losses. Social media users post messages, pictures, and videos, and then like gamblers watch for the rewards. Research shows people get a boost of the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine as they chase the rewards, win or lose.
3. Ephemeral content and FOMO: The “fear of missing out” (FOMO) motivates people far more than we might realize. Social media capitalizes on users’ FOMO by making certain content available to users only temporarily. Notifications and visual cues warn users the content will soon disappear forever, making that content “ephemeral.” Ephemeral content leads young users especially to visit the social media frequently so they don’t miss out on new and usually ephemeral content.
4. Push notifications and alert sounds: Slot machine makers have long known what research again confirms – people respond to sounds that signal good or bad news or an incoming update on something important. The little “dings” heard when sending or receiving text messages actually cause a little dopamine excitement. Likewise, visual and audio notifications signaling a new “like” or response to a post also grab our attention and trigger our curiosity, causing a dopamine hit. Even the little wiggling dots on some apps, showing the other party is typing, captivate us. Vibrating alerts tickling us from inside pockets and purses do the same. The signal-response cycles become addictive. Social media deploy these methods to keep drawing users back to the service all day.
5. Infinite scroll and autoplay features: Social media use “infinite scroll” techniques so that as the user scrolls down the page, additional content below is partially visible. Typically, the user cannot look at a single post all by itself, but always sees the top of the next post in the feed. The partial display is a “tease” about next-available content, but the sequence never ends. This teasing aims to keep young users engaged and continuing to scroll to each next item. Adding to that are mini screens that automatically start playing a short video feed as soon as you scroll down to it. Users are attracted yet again to watch the video or scroll further down to see what else is there.
6. Engagement feed: Social media like Facebook and Instagram use algorithms to present users with tailored content based upon several criteria. Recommendation algorithms use data points, or “signals,” gathered from each individual user to select and/or arrange each new piece of content to display. The signals include “liking” a post, and “following” a page or creator. Signals also include unconscious actions such as lingering on certain content, or visiting but not following another user’s page.
Short videos for example, called “Reels,” are computer-selected for each user based upon factors such as the user’s previous search and viewing activity, the popularity of the content, and the user’s connection to the creator. Central to Meta’s outreach to attract and retain young users, the Reels feature displays “like” and view counts as well as comments. Users enjoy one-stop satisfaction without needing to navigate away from the video.
Meta Knew the Dopamine Connection
Dopamine’s role as a neurotransmitter tightly associated with addiction has become clearer with continuing research. [Links] The Plaintiffs’ Complaint documents that Meta has been aware of the addictive qualities of its social media features, including the dopamine triggering effects. For example, the Complaint alleges:
In May 2020, Meta conducted an internal presentation called “Teen Fundamentals” highlighting certain vulnerabilities of the teenage brain. The presentation discussed teen brains’ relative immaturity, and teenagers’ tendency to be driven by “emotion, the intrigue of novelty and reward.”
Moreover, the Complaint reports the Meta presentation noted “the teenage brain happens to be pretty easy to stimulate” and that teens’ desire for novelty “manifests itself in three behaviors that especially lend themselves to social media – exploration, discovery and experiences.”
Confirming the known dopamine connection, the Meta presentation reportedly “stated that ‘slow or repetitive content is a buzzkill’ for teens’ ‘novelty seeking mind.’” The presentation described Instagram as “deliver[ing] [teens] a dopamine hit” every time a teen “finds something unexpected” on the app, fulfilling their brains’ “insatiable” need for “‘feel good’ dopamine effects,” to which “teen brains are much more sensitive.”
Denials Despite Dangers and Harms
The Plaintiffs’ Complaint quotes Meta executives, designers and literature that downplayed or denied (or sometimes privately admitted) the addictive features of social media. The Complaint also discloses some of the research showing minors’ susceptibility to such addiction as well as the harms to them and their families. Emotional distress leading to clinical psychological issues, including chronic negative self-comparing, bullying behavior, and suicide, are all traceable to social media addiction.
The Complaint contends Meta violated federal and state laws prohibiting businesses from misrepresenting their products and failing to warn of known dangers. The Complaint also alleges Meta violated the COPPA’s statutory requirements governing companies when they deal with youngsters under 13, to include privacy protection, warning of risks, and obtaining parental opt-in approval for certain online interactions.
Legal Redress or Parent Power?
The Complaint alleges Meta violated statutes in the federal and 33 state jurisdictions, although the laws are not identical in every jurisdiction. The Plaintiffs seek injunctions as well as a wide variety of financial penalties as well as restitution where possible. Undoubtedly the states’ attorneys general have researched the applicable laws and believe they have good cases against Meta. Even so, there is no certainty that courts will apply the laws the way states hope. It’s quite likely each decision will be appealed to higher courts no matter which side “wins” on a given claim.
Meanwhile, parents cannot fail to either prohibit or closely monitor their minor children’s use of social media. If parents don’t want their children addicted to stimuli and behaviors in the same manner as to drugs or tobacco, then parents need to protect their kids. There is no guarantee the government will protect the kids any time soon, and global multi billion-dollar social media conglomerates have shown they most certainly will not.