Global tech

Facebook clamps down on underage ad targeting after Australian research revealed children were shown gambling, smoking & alcohol ads

- July 28, 2021 3 MIN READ
Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg
Instagram’s parent company, Facebook will default set Instagram accounts for users under 16 to private, and restrict targeted advertising to them following an Australian expose that revealed how easy it was for marketers to show smoking, gambling, extreme weight loss, and alcohol advertising to underage users.

The social media giant announced the changes in a blog post overnight, saying the company wants to “strike the right balance of giving young people all the things they love about Instagram while also keeping them safe”.

Facebook has owned Instagram since 2012.

The company said it will make it harder for “potentially suspicious” accounts to find young people and limit the options advertisers have to reach young people with ads.

“We’ve developed new technology that will allow us to find accounts that have shown potentially suspicious behaviour and stop those accounts from interacting with young people’s accounts. By ‘potentially suspicious behaviour’, we mean accounts belonging to adults that may have recently been blocked or reported by a young person for example,” Facebook said

“If they find young people’s accounts by searching for their usernames, they won’t be able to follow them. They also won’t be able to see comments from young people on other people’s posts, nor will they be able to leave comments on young people’s posts. We’ll continue to look for additional places where we can apply this technology.

The changes kick in from today in Australia, the US, the UK, France and Japan and the company saying it will look to expand them to other countries.

In the coming weeks Facebook will only allow advertisers to target ads to people under 18 (or older in certain countries) based on their age, gender and location.

“This means that previously available targeting options, like those based on interests or on their activity on other apps and websites, will no longer be available to advertisers,” the company said

The changes are global and apply to Instagram, Facebook and Messenger.

Facebook Australia head of policy Josh Machin said they want the platform to have robust privacy and safety features to protect younger users

“Privacy is one of our top priorities, and we’ll continue listening to young people, their parents, lawmakers and industry experts to build tools and experiences that safeguard everyone on our platforms,” he said.

The changes come after an investigation by lobby group Reset Australia, which released a report in April detailing how Facebook was profiling underage users on their interest in smoking, gambling, extreme weight loss, and alcohol, and then selling access to the profiles to advertisers for direct, targeted advertising.

Reset Australia executive director Chris Cooper said that while Facebook appeared to be proactive in protecting underage users of its platforms, the reality was that it was mostly in response to incoming international legislation, including the UK’s Age Appropriate Design Code.

“This just underscores the need for meaningful public oversight about how these platforms collect and use young people’s data. Big tech needs regulation so that it can operate in a way that meets public standards, we shouldn’t keep letting it make its own rules,” he said

“In some jurisdictions Instagram profiles will be automatically private until the user is 18, while in others it’s only up until they’re 16. What’s the difference between an 18-year-old in the UK, and a 16-year-old in Australia that singles them out for such treatment? Facebook isn’t being consistent with these changes rather it is picking and choosing which children it will and won’t protect.”

Cooper said advertising targeted at underage users underscored the need for external oversight and regulation of the social media giant.

“Facebook was making money from allowing advertisers to target teenagers based on age-inappropriate interests,” he said.

“Reset Australia’s research found Facebook’s own system profiled young people and also approved a series of dubious ads, which included targeting teenagers with cocktail recipes, gambling games, vaping, and extreme weight loss content.

“Facebook isn’t saying it will stop profiling kids based on dubious interests, just that it will not let advertisers target them based on them. There is no commitment Facebook itself won’t keep using this profiling for its own purposes.”

Reset Australia wants Australia to introduce a data code for children as part of the federal government’s privacy review to force social media giants to be designed with the best interests of children in mind.

“We shouldn’t rely on Facebook to self-regulate or other countries to dictate standards – Australia needs a regulatory code governing how children and young people’s data is collected and used,” Cooper said.

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