Well-Being Mental Health

New study says Facebook and Instagram harvesting data about children

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Story at a glance

  • A new study revealed Facebook gathers internet behavior data on children and adolescents.
  • That data is used to optimize Facebook’s AI algorithm, which fuels the company’s advertising model.
  • In July, Facebook announced it would only let advertisers target children based on their age, gender and location.

A new study suggests that Facebook and Instagram are still monitoring children under the age of 18 as they navigate the internet, despite having publicly said they would not do so for advertising purposes.

A handful of public interest groups, Global Action Plan, Reset Australia and Fairplay, published research that they believe proves Facebook continues to conduct data-driven advertising on children. In July, Facebook announced it would only allow advertisers to target ads based on age, gender and location for users under the age of 18.

However, public interest groups believe the social media company is still targeting ads to children based on their interests and web browser activity, because the company’s highly trained artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm is still calibrated to optimize itself based on users’ behaviors while on the platform. 

This ultimately benefits advertisers, who don’t need to specifically target children with interest-based targeting because Facebook’s algorithm does it for them.


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More than 40 advocacy groups around the world, including Amnesty International, wrote a letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, demanding he end all surveillance advertising on children and adolescents, including the use of artificial intelligence to optimize the delivery of specific ads to young people.

“This practice is especially concerning, given ‘optimisation’ might mean weight loss ads served to teens with emerging eating disorders or an ad being served when, for instance, a teen’s mood suggests they are particularly vulnerable,” an excerpt of the letter said.

As part of Global Action Plan, Reset Australia and Fairplay’s research, they created three experimental Facebook accounts registered for a 13-year-old and two for 16-year-olds. Through those accounts, they were able to see Facebook collecting browsing history and other online activity through the company’s own software portal, called Facebook Pixel.

This is not the first time Facebook has been called out for targeting children. Frances Haugen, whistleblower and former Facebook product manager, testified in October on Capitol Hill and noted her concerns about how the social media company’s algorithm influences teenagers.

“They learn interactions where your party ad may still go to kids interested in partying, because Facebook almost certainly has a ranking model in the background that says this person wants more party-related content,” said Haugen, according to the advocacy groups’ letter to Zuckerberg.

Facebook, now under parent company Meta, responded to accusations that its platform was still collecting data on children, according to The Guardian, and said, “The reason this information shows up in our transparency tools is because teens visit sites or apps that use our business tools. We want to provide transparency into the data we receive, even if it’s not used for ads personalisation.”

That may not be enough to appease critics, who have asked Facebook to stop harvesting information on children and adolescents and to publicly reveal how teens receive optimized, targeted ads. 


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