Facebook continues to send targeted ads to children despite claims to stop it: Study

The study revealed that FB continues to do so with the only difference being the targeting ‘optimised by a highly-trained AI Delivery System’ instead of ‘targeting selected by advertisers’

e4m by Kanchan Srivastava
Published: Nov 23, 2021 6:29 PM  | 3 min read

On July 27 of this year, Facebook (now Meta) announced to take a precautionary approach towards tracking children for ad targeting, and promised that previously available targeting options, like those based on their activities on other apps and websites, would not be available to advertisers.

The company announced that it would only allow advertisers to target ads to people under 18 on the basis of their age, gender or location on Facebook, its Messenger service and its photo-sharing platform Instagram. 

In September, the firm’s global head of safety Antigone Davis while testifying before the US Senate had assured, “We have very limited advertising to young people. You can only target a young person based on their gender, age, or location.”

The company claimed it was making the change because it agreed with youth advocates that young people might not be equipped to make decisions about targeting.

However, a recent study by a US-based group, claims that Facebook is still harvesting children’s personal data for targeted ads. The only difference is that the targeting is ‘optimised’ by a highly trained AI ‘Delivery System’.

“Facebook is still using the vast amount of data it collects about young people in order to determine which children are most likely to be vulnerable to a given ad.”

“The replacement of targeting ‘selected by advertisers’ with targeting ‘selected by an AI delivery system’ does not represent a demonstrable improvement for children in the way that Facebook characterised in their announcement and reiterated at a US Senate committee hearing. This is not a precautionary approach. Given the predictive power of AI, this system may in fact be worse for children,” notes the study conducted by an international coalition of civil liberties and child protection organisations-Reset Australia, Fair Play and Global Action Plan. 

Reset is a global initiative that works for digital threats to democracy, while Fairplay and Global Action plan are nonprofit organizations based in the US and the UK respectively. 

The coalition in an open letter to Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg last week said, “Replacing ‘targeting selected by advertisers’ with ‘optimisation selected by a machine learning delivery system’ does not represent a demonstrable improvement for children, despite Facebook’s claims in July.”

One estimate suggests that by the time a child turns 13, advertisers already hold over 72 million data points about them, and the surveillance advertising industry for children is worth in excess of $1bn US.

Facebook has received strong international criticism for targeting children with surveillance harvesting' advertising. 

Earlier this year, youth advocates in Australia and the US outlined that Facebook’s targeting processes allowed advertisers to target children interested in alcohol, gambling and weight loss. 

Children, parents dislike targeted ads: Surveys

Advertising contributes to a culture of unsustainable and unhealthy consumerism among children. 

In personalised surveillance advertising, children are specifically ‘targeted’ for commercial vulnerabilities and can lead to consumerism, disappointment and frustration and parent-child conflict. These things affect children’s wellbeing and mental health.

Referring to a few other surveys, the report highlights that children themselves resent being targeted by surveillance advertising. 

“A recent Australian poll found that 82% of 16-17 year olds have come across ads that are so targeted that they felt uncomfortable with it. Likewise, 65% of Australian parents were uncomfortable with businesses targeting ads to children based on information they have obtained by tracking a child online. Similarly, 88% of US parents believe “the practice of tracking and targeting kids and teens with ads based on their behavioral profiles” should be prohibited,” the report notes. 

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