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Facebook to limit ads children see after revelations Australian alcohol companies can reach teens

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<span>Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo</span>
Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Facebook will impose more control on the types of ads that children as young as 13 are exposed to on Instagram and other platforms, as new research finds Australian alcohol companies are not restricting their social media content from reaching younger users.

Facebook announced on Wednesday that, starting in a few weeks, Instagram will stop advertisers marketing to teens under 18 based on their interests. Only their age, gender and location will be able to be used to target ads to them.

Lobby group Reset Australia recently reported being able to set up ads targeted at teens between 13 and 17 based on interests they had expressed including smoking, extreme weight loss and gambling.

The changes will apply across Facebook, Instagram and Messenger. In a blog post, Facebook said although everyone could opt out of targeted ads manually, the company had decided to do it automatically for children.

“We’ve 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.”

Related: Facebook allows advertisers to target children interested in smoking, alcohol and weight loss

The reforms were announced on the same day a new paper was published in the journal Public Health Research and Practice, which found Australia’s largest alcohol companies were failing to stop alcohol advertising reaching children on social media, including Instagram.

The paper examined the use of social media age-restriction controls by 195 leading alcohol brands on Instagram and Facebook, and found large numbers were not shielding their content from children.

The 195 brands were owned by nine companies, and the research identified 153 Facebook accounts, including 84 based in Australia, and 151 Instagram accounts, of which 77 were Australian-based.

The authors found 28% of the Instagram accounts and 5% of Facebook accounts had not activated age-restriction controls.

“Compliance with the industry marketing code requirement for age-restriction controls is inconsistent among the largest alcohol companies operating in Australia,” the paper found. “The industry-managed regulatory system is not preventing children’s access to alcohol content on social networking sites.”

The industry’s system of self-regulation requires that companies activate age restrictions on social networking sites to prevent children accessing alcohol-related content.

The code, named the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code, is industry-managed and is a requirement only on signatories. All of the companies in the study had signed the code.

Study co-author Julia Stafford, also the chair of the Cancer Council alcohol working group, said it was clear that companies were not complying with the code.

“The alcohol industry has demonstrated that it is unable to effectively control its own marketing,” Stafford said.

“Statutory government regulation, which includes an effective monitoring system, is the necessary step to ensure children’s exposure to alcohol advertising is minimised.”

Reset Australia executive director Chris Cooper said the change made by Facebook did not limit the company’s collection of profiling data on teenagers.

“Facebook isn’t saying it will stop profiling kids based on dubious interests, just that it will not let advertisers target them based on them. There is no commitment Facebook itself won’t keep using this profiling for its own purposes,” he said.

“This just underscores the need for meaningful public oversight about how these platforms collect and use young people’s data. Big tech needs regulation so that it can operate in a way that meets public standards, we shouldn’t keep letting it make its own rules.”

Other changes Facebook announced include people under 16, who start new accounts will be set up with a private account by default. And those who have already joined and have a public account will be notified of the benefits of going private.

Eight out of 10 people under 18 already, by default, choose to have their account on private.

Instagram will also flag “potentially suspicious accounts” used by adults that have been blocked or reported by teens, and will prevent those accounts from seeing teenagers’ accounts in explore, reels, or accounts suggested for you.

If they search for usernames, they won’t be able to follow teenager accounts, or leave comments or see others’ comments on those accounts.

These changes will initially roll out in US, Australia, France, the UK and Japan, with other countries to follow.

In March it was reported Facebook was exploring developing a version of Instagram for children under the age of 13. The company could not say this week whether the plans had advanced since then.

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