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Vermont One of 41 States Suing Instagram, Alleging the App Harms Young People and Meta Knows It

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In a lawsuit filed in Chittenden Superior Court last fall, the Vermont Attorney General’s office sued Meta (which owns Facebook and Instagram) for violating the Vermont Consumer Protection Act by engaging in unfair and deceptive acts, specifically by designing Instagram to be addictive and by lying to the public about the safety of Instagram, despite the company’s knowledge of its adverse impacts on young people, especially girls.

The lawsuit states that compulsive and excessive use of social media platforms such as Instagram can “cause a wide range of harms to youths, including increased levels of anxiety and depression; reduced and interrupted sleep; increased suicidal thoughts and behaviors; and altered neurological and psychological development, including changes in brain structure similar to changes seen in individuals with addiction to substances or gambling.”

In addition to compulsive use, Instagram exposes young users to harmful experiences such as “content depicting violence, adult sexual activity, and hate speech, as well as content promoting eating disorders, self-harm, and suicide.” Additionally, young Instagram users frequently experience negative social comparison, bullying, and unwanted sexual advances, the suit says.

The Vermont Attorney General is one of eight attorneys general who have sued Meta and Instagram in state courts, while another 33 state attorneys general have joined to sue in a federal court in Northern California. If Vermont wins the case, it could collect substantial damages, as it has in prior lawsuits against tobacco companies and opioid manufacturers.

Meta denies the allegations. In a statement released last October, it said, “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.”

In the Vermont case, Meta has filed a motion to dismiss, which the state has opposed, according to Amelia Vath, outreach and communications coordinator for the Vermont Attorney General’s Office. 

“The court will hear oral argument on that motion in early July,” she said. “We won’t know when the case will go to trial until after the judge decides the motion and sets a schedule for the rest of the case.”

Much of the lawsuit is based on leaked internal research by Meta that showed Instagram was harmful to teenagers. Vermont alleges Meta promoted the deceptive narrative that Instagram is neither addictive nor harmful to youths and concealed Meta’s internal evidence to the contrary.

For example, according to the suit, an internal Meta survey found that Instagram users experienced the following events during the seven days prior to taking the survey: 

  • 7.2% of 13–15 year olds witnessed bullying; 
  • 10.8% of 13–15 year olds were the target of bullying; and
  • 13% of 13–15 year olds received unwanted sexual advances.
Leaked documents were also the basis of a Sept. 14, 2021 Wall Street Journal article about Meta, then called Facebook, headlined “Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show; Its own in-depth research shows a significant teen mental-health issue that Facebook plays down in public.”

The article reported that for three years the company had been conducting studies into how its photo-sharing Instagram app affects its millions of young users. Repeatedly, the company’s researchers found that Instagram is harmful for a sizable percentage of them, most notably teenage girls, according to the article.

“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” said one internal Meta slide from 2019 reviewed by the Journal, summarizing research about teen girls who experience such issues. “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” said another slide. “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”