May 13, 2021

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Weight loss Facebook advertisers target children interested in smoking, alcohol, weight loss

3 min read
Facebook is allowing businesses to advertise to children as young as 13 who express an interest in smoking, extreme weight loss and gambling for as little as $3, research by the lobby group Reset Australia has found.The organisation, which is critical of digital platforms, set up a Facebook page and advertising account under the name…
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weight loss Facebook is allowing businesses to advertise to children as young as 13 who express an interest in smoking, extreme weight loss and gambling for as little as $3, research by the lobby group Reset Australia has found.

The organisation, which is critical of digital platforms, set up a Facebook page and advertising account under the name “Ozzie news network” to see what ad options Facebook would provide through its Ads Manager platform.

While Facebook will not allow the advertising of alcohol and other age-inappropriate content to people under 18, it does not prevent advertisers from targeting children determined by Facebook’s profile to have an interest in alcohol, for advertising that might not appear explicitly to be about those topics.

Facebook offered the page the ability to advertise to approximately 740,000 Australian children aged between 13 and 17, but then when the group refined the advertising by interest, found that, just as for those aged over 18, they were able to advertise to teens under 18 with interests in alcohol, smoking and vaping, gambling, extreme weight loss, fast foods and online dating services.

To advertise to 52,000 teenagers interested in alcohol would cost $3.03, while getting to 14,000 teens interested in gambling would cost $11.24, or to fewer than 1,000 teens interested in cigarettes or electronic cigarettes would cost between $138.50 and $210.97.

The organisation then tested it out by getting a number of ads mentioning winning prizes, or cocktails, or asking teens if they were “summer ready” approved for advertising to those targeted demographics. The ads were ultimately never sent out.

weight loss Ads approved by Facebook for teens
Ads approved by Facebook for teenagers Photograph: Reset Australia

Reset Australia has called on the federal government to develop a code regulating how data about young people can be collected and used, saying there should be express consent from children and parents, and full transparency over how the data is used, with only necessary data collected.

“Facebook appears to use teenagers’ data in the same way as adults,” said Chris Cooper, executive director of Reset Australia. “This opens a can of worms about just how Facebook profits from underage data, and exactly what protection they have against inappropriate targeting.”

“Should a 13-year-old who lists their single status be getting targeted ads for a sugar daddy dating service? Should a 15-year-old profiled as interested in alcohol see ads that suggest cocktail recipes based on their parent’s alcohol cabinet? Do we want 16-year-olds to have ads about gambling or political extremism targeted at them?”

Facebook reviews every ad before it goes live but a spokesperson said in a statement ads could also be reviewed after they run, and would need to be compliant with local laws.

“Keeping young people safe across Facebook and Instagram is vital,” the spokesperson said. “We have significant measures in place to review all ads before and after they run, including automated systems and human reviewers.

“Anyone advertising on our platforms must comply with our policies along with all local laws and codes, such as those restricting the advertising of alcohol to minors in Australia. To support this, we also have age restriction tools that all businesses can implement on their accounts themselves to control who sees their content.”

On Tuesday Apple rolled out the latest update to its iOS software for iPhones and iPads, which allows users to opt out of apps like Facebook tracking people across the internet, limiting the data the company can collect for the purpose of developing profiles for advertising.

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