CRIME, POLICE + COURTS

Meta collected children’s data from Instagram accounts, unsealed court document alleges

Nov 26, 2023, 6:00 PM | Updated: May 28, 2024, 12:15 pm

Meta has been collecting the personal information of children without their parents’ consent. (Th...

Meta has been collecting the personal information of children without their parents’ consent. (Thomas Trutschel/Photothek/Getty Images)

(Thomas Trutschel/Photothek/Getty Images)

Originally Published: 26 NOV 23 15:12 ET

(CNN) — Since at least 2019, Meta has knowingly refused to shut down the majority of accounts belonging to children under the age of 13 while collecting their personal information without their parents’ consent, a newly unsealed court document from an ongoing federal lawsuit against the social media giant alleges.

Attorneys general from 33 states have accused Meta of receiving more than a million reports of under-13 users on Instagram from parents, friends and online community members between early 2019 and mid-2023. However, “Meta disabled only a fraction of those accounts,” the complaint states.

The federal complaint calls for court orders prohibiting Meta from the practices the attorneys general allege violate the law. Civil penalties could add up to hundreds of millions of dollars, as Meta allegedly hosts millions of users who are teens and children. Most states are seeking anywhere between $1,000 to $50,000 in fines per violation.

Privacy violations

According to the 54-count lawsuit, Meta violated a range of state-based consumer protection statutes as well as the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA), which prohibits companies from collecting the personal information of children under 13 without a parent’s consent. Meta allegedly did not comply with COPPA with respect to both Facebook and Instagram, even though “Meta’s own records reveal that Instagram’s audience composition includes millions of children under the age of 13,” and that “hundreds of thousands of teen users spend more than five hours a day on Instagram,” the court document states.

One Meta product designer wrote in an internal email that the “young ones are the best ones,” adding that “you want to bring people to your service young and early,” according to the lawsuit.

“Instagram’s Terms of Use prohibit users under the age of 13 (or higher in certain countries) and we have measures in place to remove these accounts when we identify them. However, verifying the age of people online is a complex industry challenge,” Meta told CNN in a statement on Sunday. “Many people – particularly those under the age of 13 – don’t have an ID, for example. That’s why Meta is supporting federal legislation that requires app stores to get parents’ approval whenever their teens under 16 download apps. With this approach, parents and teens won’t need to provide hundreds of individual apps with sensitive information like government IDs in order to verify their age.”

Mentally harmful content

The unsealed complaint also alleges that Meta knew that its algorithm could steer children toward harmful content, thereby harming their well-being. According to internal company communications cited in the document, employees wrote that they were concerned about “content on IG triggering negative emotions among tweens and impacting their mental well-being (and) our ranking algorithms taking [them] into negative spirals & feedback loops that are hard to exit from.”

For example, Meta researchers conducted one study in July 2021 that concluded Instagram’s algorithm may be amplifying negative social comparison and “content with a tendency to cause users to feel worse about their body or appearance,” according to the complaint. In internal emails from February 2021 cited in the lawsuit, Meta employees allegedly recognized that social comparison was “associated with greater time spent” on Meta’s social media platforms and discussed how this phenomenon is “valuable to Instagram’s business model while simultaneously causing harm to teen girls.”

In a March 2021 internal investigation looking at eating disorder content, Meta’s team followed users whose account names referenced starvation, skinniness and disordered eating. Instagram’s algorithm then began generating a list of recommended accounts “that included accounts related to anorexia,” the lawsuit states.

However, Antigone Davis, Meta’s global head of safety, testified before Congress in September 2021 that Meta does not “direct people towards content that promotes eating disorders. That actually violates our policies and we remove that content when we become aware of it. We actually use AI to find content like that and to remove it.”

“We want teens to have safe, age-appropriate experiences online, and we have over 30 tools to support them and their parents,” Meta told CNN in a statement. “We’ve spent a decade working on these issues and hiring people who have dedicated their careers to keeping young people safe and supported online. The complaint mischaracterizes our work using selective quotes and cherry-picked documents.”

Senior leadership at Instagram also knew that problematic content was a critical issue for the platform, the lawsuit states. Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, allegedly wrote in an internal email that “social comparison is to Instagram [what] election interference is to Facebook.” The lawsuit does not specify when that email was sent.

CNN has reached out to Meta regarding Davis’s and Mosseri’s comments and did not immediately receive a response.

However, despite the company’s internal research confirming concerns with social comparison on its platforms, the lawsuit alleges Meta refused to change its algorithm. One employee noted in internal communications cited in the lawsuit that content inciting negative appearance comparisons “is some of the most engaging content (on the Explore page), so this idea actively goes against many other teams’ top-line measures.” Meanwhile, “Meta’s external communications denied or obscured the fact that its Recommendation Algorithms promote High-Negative Appearance Comparison content to young users,” the lawsuit states.

Meta was also aware that its recommendations algorithms “trigger intermittent dopamine releases in young users” which can lead to addictive cycles of consumption on its platforms, according to internal documents cited in the lawsuit.

“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,” said Letitia James, the attorney general for New York, in a statement last month. New York is one of the states involved in the federal suit. “Social media companies, including Meta, have contributed to a national youth mental health crisis and they must be held accountable,” James said.

Eight additional attorneys general sued Meta last month in various state courts, making similar claims to the massive multistate federal lawsuit. Florida sued Meta in its own separate federal lawsuit, alleging the company misled users about potential health risks of its products.

The wave of lawsuits is the result of a bipartisan, multistate investigation dating back to 2021, after Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen came forward with tens of thousands of internal company documents that she said showed how the company knew its products could have negative impacts on young people’s mental health.

CNN’s Brian Fung contributed to this reporting

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Meta collected children’s data from Instagram accounts, unsealed court document alleges