Teens targeted by inappropriate ads online

·2-min read

A big tech watchdog says Australian teenagers on Facebook can be profiled and targeted by advertisers promoting alcohol, smoking, gambling, adult dating sites and extreme weight loss.

While underage Facebook users can't be served alcohol, cigarette or gambling ads specifically, a report by Reset Australia has identified a loophole that allows underage profiles to be targeted based on these interests.

Reset Australia works to counter digital threats to democracy and is demanding greater data protections for teens.

Facebook builds profiles based on interests and then sells access to these profiles to advertisers for direct, targeted advertising, and Reset Australia chief executive Chris Cooper says Facebook appears to use teens' data in the same way as adults.

It found it costs advertisers $127 to target 1000 underage profiles with an interest in smoking, $38 to target 1000 underage profiles interested in extreme weight loss, and just $3 to target 1000 an underage profiles interested in alcohol.

The report found Facebook allowed advertisers to target teenage profiles based on a range of questionable interests, from smoking, gambling and alcohol to dating status.

It says the targeted nature of the ads is different from kids' incidental viewing of ads.

"A school bus with a beer ad on the side of it can't pick a kid interested in underage drinking and then follow them throughout their day. But a targeted, granular ad will be in their phone, monitoring their activities and ready to target them every time they use social media," Mr Cooper said.

Reset Australia ran a controlled experiment to see what oversight Facebook had over underage profiling.

It found Facebook-approved content targeted at teenagers included vaping, cocktail recipes, gambling games, political extremism and Q-Anon references, extreme weight loss, and adult dating.

"This opens a can of worms about just how Facebook profits from underage data, and exactly what protection they have against inappropriate targeting," Mr Cooper said.

"Should a 13-year-old who lists their single status be getting targeted ads for a sugar daddy dating service?"

"We need some ground rules to protect how young people's data is collected and used, especially given we don't know the long term ramifications of unchecked data harvesting," he said.

Reset Australia is advocating for a data code for children as part of the federal government's privacy review.

Facebook has been contacted for comment.