Facebook to Limit How Advertisers Can Target Teens

Marketers won’t be able to show ads based on interests and online activity to those under 18

Teenager using a cell phone. Photo: iStock

In a few weeks, advertisers will no longer be able to use Facebook, Instagram, or Messenger to show ads to teens based specifically on their interests and online activity.

A pair of experiments earlier this year found that Facebook allowed advertisers to publish alcohol, drug, and weight loss-themed ads and target them specifically at teens that Facebook had determined were interested in those topics.

Facebook said Tuesday that interest categories won’t be made available to advertisers anymore, as long as they’re targeting users under 18.

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That means that teens will be off-limits for the type of hypertargeted advertising that helped make the company into a marketing giant: the ads that try to guess what you’d like to buy or see based on your browsing habits on Facebook and around the internet.

Marketers will still be able to use broad categories—age, gender, and location—to target ads at teens.

Advocacy groups have called for Facebook to cut advertisers off from targeting teens with interest-based advertising, which draws from detailed profiles the company gathers on its users. These interests can range from the trite (like the sports teams a person follows) to the intimate or sensitive (like interests in alcohol or extreme weight loss).

In April, a technology watchdog called Reset Australia created ads with poker chips, dice, and encouragements like “TRY YOUR LUCK” that targeted Australian teens Facebook had identified as interested in gambling.

A week later, in the U.S., the nonprofit Tech Transparency Project set up an ad offering “pro-ana” tips—using a common shortening of “pro-anorexia”—with an image of a woman with a narrow waist. It was targeted at teens that Facebook had identified as interested in extreme weight loss.

Neither group published the test ads, which also included ads promoting alcohol and tobacco, but they could have: Facebook’s ad-management system approved them to run. That’s despite the fact that some of the ads violated Facebook’s existing policies against targeting teens with alcohol or gambling ads.

Now, instead of allowing some types of interest-targeted ads for teens and banning others, Facebook has taken the interests off the table entirely. That approach may spread to other social media companies, says Nathalie Maréchal, a researcher at Ranking Digital Rights, a nonprofit that grades tech companies on factors including their privacy and content moderation practices.

“As the online advertising sector comes under more scrutiny, I predict we are going to see more companies decline ads for highly regulated product categories or targeted at sensitive groups,” she says.

In a blog post announcing the change on Tuesday, Facebook said that it already gives users some ways to control the types of interest- and activity-based ads they see. But, the company said, “we heard from youth advocates that young people may not be well equipped to make these decisions. We agree with them, which is why we’re taking a more precautionary approach in how advertisers can reach young people with ads.”

In addition, the company said that kids under 16 who open an Instagram account will now have a private account by default, but they can still opt for a public account. The company will also try to keep young users’ accounts from appearing in the feeds of adults it has determined behave inappropriately toward young people, as well as in those adults’ search results.

Facebook says it will notify users who turn 18 that they can now be targeted with interest-based ads, suggesting that the company will continue building interest profiles for teen users while withholding them from advertisers. Katie Paul, director of the Tech Transparency Project, says Facebook should stop profiling teens’ interests at all.

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.