Facebook continues to surveil teens for ads, study claims

(FILES) this file photo taken on October 05, 2020 in Toulouse, southwestern France, shows logos of US social networks Facebook and Instagram on the screens of a tablet and a mobile phone. - Major social media services including Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp were hit by a massive outage on October 4, 2021, tracking sites showed, impacting potentially tens of millions of users. (Photo by Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP) (Photo by LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP via Getty Images)
Teens and children’s accounts still receive targeted advertising based on collected data. Credits: AFP

A new study has found that teens and children’s accounts still receive targeted advertising based on data collected from surveilling their browsing history.

Facebook is using data about children’s online behaviour to feed their machine learning-enabled ‘Delivery System’ to optimise targeting in children’s feeds, according to the study.

Meta, formerly known as Facebook, is still tracking teens for ad targeting on its social media platforms, according to the research conducted by Fairplay, which campaigns against marketing to children, Global Action Plan and Reset Australia. 

The study was done by setting up three fake Facebook accounts, for a 13-year-old and two 16-year-olds. Researchers were able to view the data harvested by the company’s software across Facebook, Instagram and Messenger, as the ‘users’ visited sites such as local newspapers and clothing retailers.

UK’s Age Appropriate Design Code came into force on 2 September 2020, with organisations needing to comply by 2 September 2021.

On July 27, Facebook announced that it would only allow advertisers to target ads to people under 18 based on their age, gender and location. This removed previously available targeting options, like those based on interests or activity on other apps and websites.

Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to a screen projection of Instagram logo
Researchers were able to view the data harvested by the company’s software across Facebook, Instagram and Messenger (Reuters)

The company went on to say that they made the decision after listening to youth advocates’ concerns that young people may not be well equipped to make decisions to limit harmful advertising. 

‘We agree with them, which is why we’re taking a more precautionary approach in how advertisers can reach young people with ads,’ said Meta in a press release.

The new research contradicts Facebook’s previous claims and revealed that the company has in fact not limited the use of surveillance advertising. Meta still harvests children’s personal data to fuel their advertising delivery system. The only difference is that the targeting is ‘optimised’ by a highly trained AI ‘Delivery System’

Given the predictive power of AI, this system may be worse for children according to the study.

Children usually cannot distinguish between advertising and information, especially within digital contexts. Data-driven advertising can be more misleading for children than traditional advertising as it can increase buying pressure leading to consumerism, disappointment and parent-child conflict, which could have consequences on their mental health and wellbeing.

By the time a child turns 13, advertisers already hold over 72 million data points about them according to the study. The surveillance advertising industry for children is worth over $1 billion in the US.

Meta, with access to a child’s browsing history, mood, insecurities, peers’ interests etc., is able to leverage its vast data stores for ads that can be manipulative. For example, ads for dangerous ‘Flat Tummy Teas’ or harmful exercise routines reach young women on Instagram with body insecurities.

PICTURE POSED BY MODEL File photo dated 02/02/20 of a teenage girl with her head in her hands. A record number of children and young people in England have sought mental health support, according to new analysis. Issue date: Thursday September 23, 2021. PA Photo. In just three months, almost 200,000 youngsters were referred to mental health services - nearly double pre-pandemic levels. See PA story HEALTH Coronavirus Mental. Photo credit should read: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
Children usually cannot distinguish between advertising and information, especially within digital contexts, leading to mental health issues. (Credits: PA)

A recent Australian poll found that that 82% of 16 and 17-year-olds have come across ads that are so targeted they felt uncomfortable. Likewise, 65% of Australian parents were uncomfortable with businesses targeting ads to children based on information 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 behavioural profiles’ should be prohibited.

‘It concerns me how accurately advertisers can target me from things I was unaware they could collect data from,’ said a 17-year old Australian in the study.

In a response to the research, the tech giant denied using the tracking data it’s still collecting to teens’ accounts to personalise ads but didn’t explain what the data was for.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 11: Facebook co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill April 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. This is the second day of testimony before Congress by Zuckerberg, 33, after it was reported that 87 million Facebook users had their personal information harvested by Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm linked to the Trump campaign. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
44 advocacy signed an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Meta. Credits: Getty Images

Following the research, 44 advocacy signed an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Meta, urging him to stop the data gathering that is being used for ‘surveillance advertising’ for children and teens.

‘We are writing to urge you to immediately end all surveillance advertising to children and adolescents, including the use of artificial intelligence to optimise the delivery of specific ads to the young people most vulnerable to them,’ said the letter.

The letter’s signatories include 5Rights, which campaigns for tighter online controls for children in the UK, and the US-based Center for Digital Democracy.

In recent months, support has been mounting for an outright ban on surveillance advertising in the EU, in favour of privacy-safe alternatives like contextual ads. The coalition’s letter and research could likely build further support for such a move.

Facebook has since rebranded to ‘Meta’ but still hasn’t been able to shake off the string of PR scandals mostly to do with the harm it causes to young people.

The company is being called to correct their claims and end surveillance advertising for children and teens across all its platforms.

Metro.co.uk has contacted Facebook for a response to the study’s claims and we will update this article when we hear back.

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