Sunday, October 29, 2023

Last Call For America's Kids Getting Zucked Up

A huge multistate lawsuit against Instagram and Facebook parent company Meta was announced this week as 41 states are suing the social media giant over addicting tens of millions of kids on purpose
Dozens of states sued Instagram-parent Meta on Tuesday, accusing the social media giant of harming young users’ mental health through allegedly addictive features such as infinite news feeds and frequent notifications that demand users’ constant attention.

In a federal lawsuit filed in California by 33 attorneys general, the states allege that Meta’s products have harmed minors and contributed to a mental health crisis in the United States.

“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,” said Letitia James, the attorney general for New York, one of the states involved in the federal suit. “Social media companies, including Meta, have contributed to a national youth mental health crisis and they must be held accountable.”

Eight additional attorneys general sued Meta on Tuesday in various state courts around the country, making similar claims as the massive multi-state federal lawsuit.

And the state of Florida sued Meta in its own separate federal lawsuit, alleging that Meta misled users about potential health risks of its products.

Tuesday’s multistate federal suit — filed in the US District Court for the Northern District of California — accuses Meta of violating a range of state-based consumer protection statutes, as well as a federal children’s privacy law known as COPPA that prohibits companies from collecting the personal information of children under 13 without a parent’s consent.

“Meta’s design choices and practices take advantage of and contribute to young users’ susceptibility to addiction,” the complaint reads. “They exploit psychological vulnerabilities of young users through the false promise that meaningful social connection lies in the next story, image, or video and that ignoring the next piece of social content could lead to social isolation.”

The federal complaint calls for court orders prohibiting Meta from violating the law and, in the case of many states, unspecified financial penalties.

“We share the attorneys generals’ commitment to providing teens with safe, positive experiences online, and have already introduced over 30 tools to support teens and their families,” Meta said in a statement. “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 wave of lawsuits is the result of a bipartisan, multistate investigation dating back to 2021, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said at a press conference Tuesday, after Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen came forward with tens of thousands of internal company documents that she said showed how the company knew its products could have negative impacts on young people’s mental health.

“We know that there were decisions made, a series of decisions to make the product more and more addictive,” Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti told reporters. “And what we want is for the company to undo that, to make sure that they are not exploiting these vulnerabilities in children, that they are not doing all the little, sophisticated, tricky things that we might not pick up on that drive engagement higher and higher and higher that allowed them to keep taking more and more time and data from our young people.”

Tuesday’s multipronged legal assault also marks the newest attempt by states to rein in large tech platforms over fears that social media companies are fueling a spike in youth depression and suicidal ideation.

“There’s a mountain of growing evidence that social media has a negative impact on our children,” said California Attorney General Rob Bonta, “evidence that more time on social media tends to be correlated with depression with anxiety, body image issues, susceptibility to addiction and interference with daily life, including learning.”

The suits follow a raft of legislation in states ranging from Arkansas to Louisiana that clamp down on social media by establishing new requirements for online platforms that wish to serve teens and children, such as mandating that they obtain a parent’s consent before creating an account for a minor, or that they verify users’ ages.
I predict a big multibillion dollar settlement, followed by hefty new rules for social media in the US concerning children for Meta in order to head off federal regulations, but I don't think that will hold for long. If Meta really did make as an addictive product as possible, they're going to deserve all the legal smoke they can get.

The Auto Loan Crisis Is Back, Too

High interest rates, chip shortages, and high auto prices are resulting in the worst auto loan market in three decades.

Higher car prices and rising interest rates are hindering car owners’ ability to afford their vehicle payments, as 6.1% of subprime auto borrowers are at least 60 days past due on their loans, the highest percentage in data dating back to 1994, according to Bloomberg, which cited Fitch Ratings.

The 6.1% of borrowers behind on auto loans last month marks a surge from the 2.6% reported in May 2021, after the federal government significantly lowered interest rates in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Higher vehicle prices and borrowing costs—along with continued higher than usual inflation—have fueled the rising number of Americans behind on their auto loans, a problem that might persist given forecasts from Federal Reserve officials who believe high interest rates will continue through 2026.

Margaret Rowe, a senior executive at Fitch, told Bloomberg subprime borrowers can be the first indication of “where we start to see the negative effects of macroeconomic headwinds.”

Generation Z and millennials may account for a significant amount of the borrowers behind on their auto loans, as the two generations recorded auto loan delinquency rates last year that were significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels, according to an NBC News report that cited TransUnion.

Interest rates for used cars are 13.5% on average for those with fair credit but can rocket up to around 21% for those with the worst credit, according to Bankrate.

Rising car prices have in part been caused by a pandemic-induced computer chip shortage, and some chip shortages could continue into 2024, according to J.P. Morgan.

I know we've managed to avoid a recession so far with this week's stellar GDP report and we have more protections in place than we did fifteen years ago, but I'll be damned if this doesn't all feel like the Great Recession is coming. More likely, the massive economic damage from Trump and Covid is only playing out now and the medicine is painful, but the alternative really is another Great Recession, and if we don't stop the guy who got us into this mess in 2019 and he wins in 2024, we are absolutely sunk as an economy.

We've avoided the crack-up for now, but it's going to take years to dig ourselves out of the Trump mess. If we put ourselves back in it, we're not coming up for air.

Sunday Long Read: Scare Apparent

For Halloween this week, our Sunday Long Read is Scientific American's look at why we love to be scared and the science behind it. From Darwin to today, researchers say "scary play" is a necessary way to explore our world as social creatures.

Chain saws roar, and spine-chilling screams echo from behind a dense wall of trees. You know you're at a scary attraction in the woods of Denmark called Dystopia Haunted House, yet everything sounds so real. As you walk into the house, you become disoriented in a dark maze filled with strange objects and broken furniture; when you turn a corner, you're confronted by bizarre scenes with evil clowns and terrifying monsters reaching out for you. Then you hear the chain saw revving up, and a masked man bursts through the wall. You scream and start running.

This might sound like the kind of place nobody would ever want to be in, but every year millions of people pay to visit haunts just like Dystopia. They crowd in during Halloween, to be sure, but show up in every other season, too. This paradox of horror's appeal—that people want to have disturbing and upsetting experiences—has long perplexed scholars. We devour tales of psychopathic killers on true crime podcasts, watch movies about horrible monsters, play games filled with ghosts and zombies, and read books that describe apocalyptic worlds packed with our worst fears.

This paradox is now being resolved by research on the science of scary play and morbid curiosity. Our desire to experience fear, it seems, is rooted deep in our evolutionary past and can still benefit us today. Scary play, it turns out, can help us overcome fears and face new challenges—those that surface in our own lives and others that arise in the increasingly disturbing world we all live in.

The phenomenon of scary play surprised Charles Darwin. In The Descent of Man, he wrote that he had heard about captive monkeys that, despite their fear of snakes, kept lifting the lid of a box containing the reptiles to peek inside. Intrigued, Darwin turned the story into an experiment: He put a bag with a snake inside it in a cage full of monkeys at the London Zoological Gardens. A monkey would cautiously walk up to the bag, slowly open it, and peer down inside before shrieking and racing away. After seeing one monkey do this, another monkey would carefully walk over to the bag to take a peek, then scream and run. Then another would do the same thing, then another.

The monkeys were “satiating their horror,” as Darwin put it. Morbid fascination with danger is widespread in the animal kingdom—it's called predator inspection. The inspection occurs when an animal looks at or even approaches a predator rather than simply fleeing. This behavior occurs across a range of animals, from guppies to gazelles.

At first blush, getting close to danger seems like a bad idea. Why would natural selection have instilled in animals a curiosity about the very things they should be avoiding? But there is an evolutionary logic to these actions. Morbid curiosity is a powerful way for animals to gain information about the most dangerous things in their environment. It also gives them an opportunity to practice dealing with scary experiences.

What doesn't kill us only makes us stronger...or at least it gives us working data on how to handle things that go bump in the night. 
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