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Facebook’s teen mental health Waterloo

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Shapshak is editor-in-chief of Stuff.co.za and executive director of Scrolla.Africa

‘Meta has harnessed powerful and unprecedented technologies to entice, engage and ultimately ensnare youth and teens. Its motive is profit.’

Facebook’s decades-long disregard for its users’ mental health is coming back to bite it in the form of a major lawsuit by several states in the US.

The attorneys general of 42 states have sued Instagram owner, Meta – or Facebook, as we all still call it – for the callous and cynical way they have profited from the world’s youth while damaging their mental health.

“Meta has harnessed powerful and unprecedented technologies to entice, engage and ultimately ensnare youth and teens,” according to the 233-page lawsuit. 

“Its motive is profit.”

And that is exactly why Facebook did it. Money, money, money. 

We know a lot about what is likely to be in this lawsuit – even though it is heavily redacted – because it is based on the smoking gun that whistle-blower Frances Haugen revealed in 2021.

The trove of internal documents and research shows how the social giant “prioritises growth over safety”, as Haugen so famously said. 

And there is no way to paint her as a disgruntled former employee – not with her 16-year career (she worked with algorithms at Google, Pinterest and Yelp), an engineering degree and an MBA from Harvard.

Haugen used her “insider knowledge of the social network to provide new insights that few outsiders have heard before”, as The New York Times described her testimony to Congress in October 2021.

Facebook “designed psychologically manipulative product features to induce young users’ compulsive and extended use” of Instagram, the lawsuit states. 

It knew this was addictive behaviour and yet it encouraged it – including through notifications and “infinite scroll”.

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein said: “Facebook has spent untold billions of dollars… figuring out how to design this to maximise its addictiveness, and we want them to change the parts of the platform that serve to be addictive.”

Programmatic advertising, which brought in those “untold billions” in the first place, is the underpinning technology and business model. It’s how Facebook and Google have grown to be such colossal businesses and created what we now call surveillance capitalism. 

Much of this, as this lawsuit suggests, has had detrimental consequences that Big Tech knew about and could’ve done something. 

The case also alleges Facebook didn’t check if kids who signed up really were over 13, and illegally collected their data, also without their parents’ consent – a violation of the US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

“It’s important that companies that are out in the market do not exploit children, and when they do, we will go after them,” Stein said.

While the current focus is Instagram, the tide has turned for that particular social network – with the world’s youth turning to Chinese-owned TikTok, recently fined by the EU for its lax privacy controls for children.

Stein added: “But I think that we as a country would be well served if there were industry-wide rules protecting kids… not only for Instagram, not only for TikTok, but for Snapchat and whatever new platform exists three years from now.”

Back in 2021, Haugen reminded the world that Facebook’s CEO – the company’s leader – has no oversight: “There is nobody currently holding Zuckerberg accountable but himself. The buck stops with Mark.”

Now, those US states want that buck to stop with Zuckerberg.

He is going to have a hard time wheedling his way out of this one. This is arguably Facebook’s Waterloo – there is no way to defend consigning tens of millions of teenagers to mental health issues while making “untold billions”.

It’s wrong and it’s indefensible. And all those American parents want justice. DM

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