Lawyers claim social media uses addictive algorithms to hook young people on potentially harmful content, putting profits before mental health.
Dozens of states in the United States, including California and New York, are suing Meta for harming young people and contributing to the youth mental health crisis by knowingly and deliberately designing features on Instagram and Facebook that cause children to become addicted to its platforms.
A lawsuit filed by 33 states in federal court in California, claims that Meta routinely collects data on children aged under 13 without their parents' consent, in violation of federal law.
In addition, nine attorneys general are filing lawsuits in their respective states, bringing the total number of states taking action to 41 as well as Washington DC.
"Meta has harnessed powerful and unprecedented technologies to entice, engage, and ultimately ensnare youth and teens. Its motive is profit, and in seeking to maximise its financial gains, Meta has repeatedly misled the public about the substantial dangers of its social media platforms," the complaint says.
"It has concealed the ways in which these platforms exploit and manipulate its most vulnerable consumers: teenagers and children".
The suits seek financial damages and restitution and an end to Meta's practices that are in violation of the law.
"Kids and teenagers are suffering from record levels of poor mental health and social media companies like Meta are to blame," said New York Attorney General Letitia James in a statement.
"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".
In a statement, Meta said it shares "the attorneys general's commitment to providing teens with safe, positive experiences online, and have already introduced over 30 tools to support teens and their families".
"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," the company added.
Bipartisan support for lawsuit
The broad-ranging federal suit is the result of an investigation led by a bipartisan coalition of attorneys general from California, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Vermont.
It follows damning newspaper reports, first by The Wall Street Journal in the autumn of 2021, based on the Meta's own research that found that the company knew about the harm Instagram can cause teenagers - especially teen girls - when it comes to mental health and body image issues.
One internal study cited 13.5 per cent of teen girls saying Instagram makes thoughts of suicide worse and 17 per cent of teen girls saying it makes eating disorders worse.
Following the first reports, a consortium of news organisations, including The Associated Press, published their own findings based on leaked documents from whistleblower Frances Haugen, who has testified before Congress and a British parliamentary committee about what she found.
"Meta has been harming our children and teens, cultivating addiction to boost corporate profits," said California Attorney General Rob Bonta. "With today's lawsuit, we are drawing the line".
The use of social media among teens is nearly universal in the US and many other parts of the world.
Almost all teens ages 13 to 17 in the US report using a social media platform, with about a third saying they use social media "almost constantly," according to the Pew Research Center.