There has been public outcry against social media companies collecting massive amounts of data on people specifically children. This data is then used by unhealthy product industries to target their marketing and push kids to buy their products from a young age. Thus, making them lifelong consumers at the cost of their health.
Several reports that came out in Australia highlighted the problems in digital marketing by alcohol companies targeting children.
- A report by VicHealth, the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) and the Obesity Policy Coalition (OPC) uncovered how widespread targeted marketing of harmful products to Australian children is in the country. This report found that 940,000 children were profiled as “interested in alcohol” by Facebook in 2018.
- Another report by Reset Australia published soon after exposed how Facebook collects and profiles children’s data for targeted advertising. They found Facebook profiled children as being interested in alcohol, tobacco and gambling. According to their analysis, reaching a thousand kids and teens profiled as interested in alcohol will only cost advertisers around $3.03.
- A new study by Cancer Council WA found that 28% of Instagram and 5% of Facebook accounts of major alcohol companies and brands did not have age-restriction controls activated, thereby, exposing children to harm.
These reports, community pressure and public health advocacy led Facebook to change their advertising policies. Facebook announced they will restrict advertisers targeting children below 18 based on their interests across their platforms.
Limiting ads but continuing to collect children’s data
While Facebook said they will stop advertisers from targeting children they did not commit to stop collecting this data which profiles children as interested in harmful products. This means once children become 18 years unhealthy industries such as alcohol will obtain ready-made profiles on targeting youth.
The report by FARE and OPC found that by the time a child is 13 an estimated 72 million data points will have been collected by companies on a child. The report exposed that 940,000 children were marked as interested in alcohol products in 2018.
Alcohol marketing driving higher alcohol use and the alcohol norm among young people and children is well-documented. Some research findings are as follows:
- One study found that despite the claims of the industry, increasing sales is an objective of alcohol marketing and that marketing campaigns increased consumption related outcomes.
- A report from Australia revealed the link between alcohol advertising and sponsorship to earlier age alcohol initiation in those who were not having alcohol, and more heavy alcohol use in minors and young people who were already consuming alcohol.
- A study found that awareness of alcohol marketing increased alcohol use and higher risk alcohol use among youth who already consume alcohol. Those who have never had alcohol, were more susceptible to alcohol if they owned alcohol branded items.
- This study shows, that Australian youth exposed to frequent alcohol marketing on social networking sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter consume 13% to 40% more alcohol compared to their peers not exposed to such messages.
- A scientific review found that engaging with digital alcohol marketing was positively associated to higher alcohol consumption and more binge or hazardous alcohol use behavior.
Considering the heavy and long-term harm alcohol marketing poses to youth just limiting ads for children is not enough. It is unethical to be collecting data on children about risky or unhealthy interests. Legally children can not consume such products hence they can not be considered as “interested” in them.
For so long Facebook has allowed unhealthy industries to target children to maximize profit. Unhealthy industries have continued to do so profiting at the cost of health and well-being of children.
Public health advocates have called for public oversight on how people are targeted online, including advertising of harmful products like alcohol, drugs and gambling. There is a need to reduce the massive data collection by social media companies and unhealthy industries, including alcohol industry, that use this data for their advertising.
It is imperative that children are protected from targeting on social media. Measures need to be taken by governments to ensure social media companies do not collect children’s data for targeted advertising and that advertisers do not get access to children’s data.