Facebook Approved Alcohol and Gambling Ads Targeting Teens

The social network fails to enforce its own rules on inappropriate advertising to teens, two new studies claim

A teenager texts on her phone while lying on her bed FatCamera

Update: On July 27, 2021, Facebook announced that it will no longer allow advertisers to target interest-based ads at teens.

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None of the ads were shown to the public. The two groups—an American nonprofit research organization called Tech Transparency Project and Reset Australia, a technology watchdog—canceled the advertisements after they were approved but before they appeared in Facebook users’ feeds.

“Facebook—or any company—should not be allowing this sort of advertising to teenagers,” says Ariel Fox Johnson, senior counsel for global policy at Common Sense Media, a research and advocacy organization that studies how children use media and technology.

“Teens are more susceptible to targeted ad techniques than adults,” Johnson says. “And all the problems with advertising to teens are exacerbated when you’re targeting teens based on their unique insecurities and problems.”

Aiming Ads at Teens

Tech Transparency Project (left) Reset Australia (right) FaceBook ads screens

Tech Transparency Project (left) Reset Australia (right) Tech Transparency Project (left) Reset Australia (right)

Tech Transparency Project (left) Reset Australia (right) FaceBook ads screens

Tech Transparency Project (left), Reset Australia (right) Tech Transparency Project (left), Reset Australia (right)

Avoiding Targeted Advertising

Both groups’ conclusions square with the results of an experiment that Consumer Reports performed last year. We set up seven paid ads with a range of COVID-related falsehoods, including one that encouraged users to drink bleach. The ads, which violated Facebook’s policies against coronavirus misinformation, sailed through the approval process. CR canceled the ads before they were shown to Facebook users.

“I am appalled that Facebook still hasn’t fixed its ad-approval process, a year after your original experiment,” says Nathalie Maréchal, a researcher at Ranking Digital Rights, a nonprofit that grades tech companies on factors including their privacy and content moderation practices. “Enforcing its own rules for advertising is the bare minimum Facebook should be doing: They write those rules, the volume of ads is much smaller than user content, and they don’t have to weigh the same kinds of free-expression issues for ads as they do for user content.”

Teens aren’t just the unwitting subjects of targeted advertising—many say they’re also creeped out by it. When Reset surveyed 400 16- and 17-year-olds about data collection and profiling last month, almost 79 percent of them said they were concerned about Facebook’s data gathering practices. They were particularly worried about being pegged for an interest in weight loss, gambling, or cigarettes.

What can you do to keep unwanted ads out of your digital diet? It’s hard to avoid targeted advertising online—these ads are the financial engine of some of the biggest tech companies, including Facebook and Google. But there are a few ways to make it less personal and intrusive.

Facebook’s ad preferences allow you to see what information about you is made available to advertisers, and the interest categories that Facebook has assigned to you. You can remove the categories individually if you don’t want advertisers to use them. You can also tell Facebook to stop using information about you that it gathered from other companies in order to target ads. However, you’ll have to follow separate instructions to tell Instagram to do the same thing.

If you come across a Facebook ad that shouldn’t be there—if it appears to be targeting teens with alcohol ads, for example—you can report it to Facebook.

You can also try to reduce the amount of targeted advertising you see elsewhere on the internet. Google allows you to turn off personalized ads, and a new feature on Apple devices like iPhones and iPads allows users to tell apps to stop tracking them.

But Johnson at Common Sense says that teens shouldn’t have to jump through such hoops to avoid targeted advertising—they should be off-limits entirely.

“We do not consider it in the best interest of children to show them ads based on profiling,” she says. Some countries, like the U.K. and Ireland, have recently proposed or published guidelines that discourage targeting advertising toward kids. “Hopefully, companies are going to start to listen.”

Headshot of CRO author Kaveh Waddell

Kaveh Waddell

I'm an investigative journalist at CR's Digital Lab, covering algorithmic bias, misinformation, and technology-enabled abuses of power. In the past, I've reported for Axios and The Atlantic, and as a freelancer in Beirut. Outside work, I enjoy biking and hiking in and around San Francisco, where I live, and doing the crossword while cheating as little as possible. Find me on Twitter at @kavehwaddell.