Social media firms made billions advertising to minors

Social media companies made more than $11 billion by advertising to minors this year, a new study finds.

Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health used U.S. Census data to estimate the total number of users under 18 years old on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, X and YouTube in 2022. With data from another firm called Insider Intelligence and from a parental control app called Qustodio, they also measured the rough ad revenue of each platform and the amount of time children were spending on the platform.

Researchers say the findings show the need to impose more regulation on platforms that aren’t regulating themselves to protect minors. Such steps could also help address mental health challenges in the young population.

“Although social media platforms may claim that they can self-regulate their practices to reduce the harms to young people, they have yet to do so, and our study suggests they have overwhelming financial incentives to continue to delay taking meaningful steps to protect children,” said senior study author Bryn Austin, a professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Harvard.

Social media firms don’t release figures on the revenue they make from advertising to minors. Concerns over the effect of those ads have also circulated for years.

In 2020, the American Academy of Pediatrics wrote that advertising practices can prey on young minds that aren’t fully developed yet.

“Children are “uniquely vulnerable to the persuasive effects of advertising because of immature critical thinking skills and impulse inhibition,” researchers wrote. “School-aged children and teenagers may be able to recognize advertising but often are not able to resist it when it is embedded within trusted social networks, encouraged by celebrity influencers, or delivered next to personalized content.”

The Federal Trade Commission this year proposed changing its rules on advertising to crack down on child-focused advertising, including by turning off targeted ads for those 13 and younger.