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Josh Stein joins nationwide suit against Meta, alleging unethical data collection

Photos courtesy of Adobe Stock.

On Oct. 24, N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein, along with 41 other attorneys general across the United States, sued Meta, the owner of Instagram and Facebook. The lawsuit claims Meta created a business model that focuses on maximizing the time and attention young users spend on its platforms while implementing harmful and manipulative product features to prolong usage.

It also alleged the company knowingly collected data from users under the age of 13 without parental consent — which is in direct violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

"A whole generation of young people struggle with their health and safety because companies are trying to make an extra dollar,” Stein said in a press release. “I am bringing this action to demand that Meta do better and not exploit our children."

Sam Hiner, a co-founder and executive director of Young People’s Alliance, said almost all young people have been affected by social media in some way.

Hiner said the issue is that social media companies, like Meta, collect as much data as they can to create personalized feeds aimed at keeping people online for as long as possible. One major implication of these algorithms, he said, is disordered eating and body image issues in many adolescents. He said some individuals already feeling insecurities about their body or eating patterns often pay more attention to healthy eating posts, which in turn causes more healthy eating posts to be suggested.

He also said many people might see the manipulation of social media sites as a personal failing rather than a policy issue.

“I realized that it's not just me, it's everyone — and it's because these apps are designed by some of the smartest people on the planet working on designing these apps in a way to be as addictive as possible,” Hiner said.

Because companies will likely not regulate these algorithms themselves, he said he believes the only real solution is to directly say in the law that companies cannot use user data in their algorithms to filter content.

Rosa Li, a teaching assistant professor at UNC and a researcher at the Winston National Center on Technology Use, Brain, and Psychological Development, said she finds it highly unlikely that social media companies would voluntarily take steps to decrease their profits without having external pressures — like the lawsuit.

“The tech companies are democratizing this platform because they want you to have fun,” Li said. “They design these platforms because they want you to stay on there as long as possible and that's where they get their money from.”

While reducing harm includes pressures from legislatures, Li said the issue must be addressed from multiple directions, like educating children about safe social media usage.

Children from underrepresented groups, such as those who identify as LGBTQ+ or are part of racial or ethnic minorities, seem to benefit from the ability to interact with people online because they might not be getting the support they need in person, she said.

Kaitlyn Burnell, a research assistant professor at UNC, said the effects of social media usage depend on who is using it and what they are doing on the platforms.

Burnell said that due to a lack of research, they are not at the point where social media can be declared addictive. She also said there are several features that can be appealing to all, especially adolescents.

As many adolescents are undergoing identity development, social media provides an opportunity to compare themselves to their peers, she said.

Burnell added that while legal actions can be helpful in some cases, they may be ultimately ineffective. She said social media likely isn't going away — so we have to target ways to encourage the healthiest types of use.

“I think what we really need is for these policymakers to work with researchers in order to figure out what the best path forward is,” Burnell said. “What different prevention and intervention efforts we can implement in schools and give guidance to parents and families, and things like that.”


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