Facebook’s parent company, Meta, received millions of complaints about underage users on Instagram, but never disclosed that fact nor made any serious effort to close those accounts.
That’s according to details that have emerged from a newly unsealed complaint, which had key portions redacted when it was originally filed in October by attorneys general across the country, including Maryland Attorney General Anthony G. Brown (D).
Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, where Meta is headquartered, the complaint alleged the company “purposefully addicted children” with features on their social media platforms, including Instagram, while falsely assuring the public they were safe and suitable for young users.
The unredacted complaint, however, provides new information that had previously been under seal, including Meta documents that indicate the company knows “that a significant portion of preteens (at least 11% of 9 to 11-year olds) use Instagram,” and that CEO Mark Zuckerberg was briefed as early as 2017 that children under the age of 13 “will be critical for increasing the rate of acquisition when users turn 13,” and recommended “focus[ing] on building [its platforms] for tweens.”
Also revealed are documents that indicate Zuckerberg personally vetoed a proposed policy to ban image filters that simulated the effects of plastic surgery, dismissing as “paternalistic” the concerns raised about the filters from experts, including those from within the company itself.
Zuckerberg is also alleged to have said he had seen “no data” suggesting that the filters were harmful, despite being provided a document that detailed expert consensus on “the dangers these filters have in advancing unrealistic beauty standards and impacting mental health and body image.” The lawsuit claims that another document provided to Zuckerberg “noted that the cosmetic surgery filters could have disproportionate impacts for children and teen girls.” Despite those reports, Zuckerberg gave the final approval to reinstate the filters, citing a “clear demand” for them.
A request for comment has been made to Meta, but has yet to be returned.
Also newly revealed in the complaint are records of internal Meta communications in which officials stressed an emphasis on “driving time spent” upward and expressed an “explicit goal” to do so around major moments, including awards shows and the Olympics.
That’s despite public comments by Zuckerberg, former Meta COO Sheryl Sandberg and other company executives that it “explicitly” doesn’t give its teams “goals around time spent.”
Further belying that sentiment, and specifically as it pertains to younger users, the complaint cites an internal “teen health scorecard” in which company officials noted ‘worrying concerns’ that teen consumption and production were declining in the United States.”
In addition, a December 2015 email from Zuckerberg listed one of Meta’s goals as seeing the “[t]ime spent [on the platforms] increase by 12%” over the following three years and by 10% on Instagram between 2016 and 2021.
An April 2017 email, meanwhile, indicates the company was actively researching ways to increase the time that users, particularly those who are younger, spent on its platforms.
“We have been investing effort in researching time spent to find opportunities,” the lawsuit quotes the email. “By comparing long-term tests that always or never auto-play videos, we find that auto-play increases overall time spent for some people and cannibalizes time spent for others. Using SmartScorer, we found that auto-play increases time spent for people with high inventory utilization and younger people (college and late high school), and decreases time spent for other people.”
However, most damaging to Meta’s claims that it actively “kicks off” users under the age of 13, the lawsuit includes internal company charts, “boasting Instagram’s penetration into 11- and 12-year-old demographic cohorts,” as well as “discussions among Meta’s researchers taking pains to avoid uncovering Instagram’s under-13 users through their studies.” Also cited is an internal Meta document from 2018 that states, “we do very little to keep U13s off our platform.”
In fact, the complaint says that between the first quarter of 2019 and the second quarter of 2023, Meta received more than 1.1 million reports through its in-app and webform tools about Instagram users under the age of 13.
“These processes were only a few of many ways that Meta acquired actual knowledge of under-13 users on its Social Media Platforms,” states the complaint. “Despite this actual knowledge, Meta disabled only a fraction of those accounts and routinely continued to collect children’s data without parental consent.”
In addition to Maryland, other states participating in the federal lawsuit are Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
Together, they seek injunctive and monetary relief to rectify the alleged harms caused by the platforms.
Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report, which originally appeared at Michigan Advance, part of the States Newsroom network.