Meta Unlawfully Collects Personal Data From Underage Children Using Facebook, Instagram: Lawsuit

Meta Unlawfully Collects Personal Data From Underage Children Using Facebook, Instagram: Lawsuit
Logos of social networks Facebook and Instagram on the screens of a tablet and a mobile phone in a file photo. (Lionel Bonaventure/AFP via Getty Images)
Katabella Roberts

Facebook and Instagram parent company Meta routinely ignores reports of underage users on its platforms and has “coveted and pursued” the underage Instagram user demographic for years, according to a newly redacted complaint accompanying a lawsuit filed in October by the attorneys general of 33 states.

The complaint is part of a wider federal lawsuit filed by the coalition of attorneys general, led by California Attorney General Rob Bonta, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California last month.

The lawsuit, which stems from a nationwide investigation that began in November 2021, accuses the social media giant of implementing addictive features in the apps that “entice, engage, and, ultimately, ensnare youth and teens,” all while boosting corporate profits.

While the initial lawsuit was heavily redacted, Meta agreed to lift most of those redactions, according to a separate court filing dated Nov. 22. Portions of the complaints that contain the names of certain current and former Meta employees, however, will continue to remain redacted.

Meta has “marketed and directed its social media platforms to children under the age of 13 and has actual knowledge that those children use its platforms,” despite its policies stating that users must be at least 13 years old to sign up, according to the newly redacted complaint.

“Meta has refused to obtain (or even to attempt to obtain) the consent of those children’s parents prior to collecting and monetizing their personal data,” the complaint states. “Meta publicly denies what is privately discussed as an open secret within the company: that very young children are a known component of Meta’s user base and business model.

“Nonetheless, Meta refuses to limit its collection and use of those children’s personal information as required by law.”

Since the first quarter of 2019, Meta has received more than 1.1 million reports about Instagram users under the age of 13, via its underage reporting web form and in-app underage reporting process, the complaint stated.
“These processes were only a few of many ways that Meta acquired actual knowledge of under-13 users on its social media platforms,” according to the lawsuit. “Despite this actual knowledge, Meta disabled only a fraction of those accounts and routinely continued to collect children’s data without parental consent.”

‘Vulnerabilities of the Teenage Brain’

“Similarly, Meta routinely mishandled and failed to disable Instagram accounts that were ‘linked’ to Facebook accounts where Meta had actual knowledge that Facebook users were under the age of 13,” it continues.

In 2021, Meta received more than 402,000 reports of under-13 Instagram users through its website and app reporting systems,  the complaint stated. Yet the company’s records show that “fewer than 164,000—far fewer than half of the reported accounts—were ‘disabled for potentially being under the age of 13’ that year,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit goes on to cite a May 2020 internal presentation by Meta called “Teen Fundamentals,” which it said highlighted the addictive qualities of its platform features, including “certain vulnerabilities of the teenage brain.”

That presentation, according to the lawsuit, noted that “approval and acceptance are huge rewards for teens” and thus, features such as “comments,” “follows,” and “likes” encourage teenagers to “continue engaging and keep coming back to the app.”

“The presentation noted that teens were turning to competitor platforms to meet some of the needs discussed in the presentation, and it cautioned that Meta would ‘do well to think hard about how we can make [Instagram] an app tailored to the teenage mindset,’” the lawsuit stated. It further noted that teens often go down “rabbit holes” because of the “especially ‘plastic’” nature of their brains, and asked how Instagram could satisfy “teen[s’] insatiable appetite for novelty” through features on the app, according to the lawsuit.

“The presentation further discussed teens’ ‘increased sensitivity’ and ‘concerns about being judged,’ along with teens’ desire for reward, which ’makes them predisposed to impulse, peer pressure, and potentially harmful risky behavior,'” the lawsuit stated.

A separate internal document cited in the lawsuit noted that Meta has various “opportunities” to maximize teen engagement, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also states that Meta obtained knowledge of underage users through charts showing Instagram’s penetration, an internal report presented to owner Mark Zuckerberg, emails and policies documenting its alleged mishandling of known under-13 user accounts, discussions among researchers, and more.

Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to a screen projection of the Instagram logo in this picture illustration taken on March 28, 2018. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)
Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to a screen projection of the Instagram logo in this picture illustration taken on March 28, 2018. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Meta ‘Profoundly Altered’ Social Realities

The 33 attorneys general accuse Meta of having “profoundly altered the psychological and social realities of a generation of young Americans” through technologies that boost engagement, and say the company flouted its obligations under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) by “unlawfully collecting the personal data of its youngest users without their parent’s permission.”

The lawsuit claims Meta has tried to avoid its COPPA responsibilities “by attempting to maintain willful ignorance of its users under the age of 13,” but “routinely obtains actual knowledge of under-13 users on Instagram.”

It also argued that Meta designed its platforms with “harmful and psychologically manipulative product features to induce young users’ compulsive and extended Platform use, while falsely assuring the public that its features were safe and suitable for young users,” and that its apps promote body dysmorphia and expose underage users to potentially harmful content.

Meta said in a statement to The Associated Press that the complaint misrepresents its work over the past decade to bolster the safety of teenagers online, noting that it has “over 30 tools to support them and their parents.”

With respect to barring younger users from the service, Meta said age verification is a “complex industry challenge.”

The company has advocated for app stores and parents to ensure underage users don’t sign up for the apps. In a Nov. 15 blog post, the tech giant urged parents to approve their teen’s app downloads and said it supports federal legislation requiring app stores to get parents’ approval whenever their teens under 16 download apps.

“With this solution, when a teen wants to download an app, app stores would be required to notify their parents, much like when parents are notified if their teen attempts to make a purchase. Parents can decide if they want to approve the download,” the company stated. “They can also verify the age of their teen when setting up their phone, negating the need for everyone to verify their age multiple times across multiple apps.”

Jill McLaughlin contributed to this report.