Why Biden’s call to ban targeted advertising to kids & teens matters

Right now, the ad industry is choosing easy profits over the wellbeing of an entire generation.

Kids' health

Kids and teens are put at risk when companies gather and sell their data.

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During the State of the Union yesterday, President Biden called for a ban on targeted advertising to minors under 18.

He pointed to the rising mental health crisis in teens as a primary reason to move forward. Too much social media use has been linked to rising anxiety, depression and social isolation.

What’s targeted advertising have to do with social media use and the teen mental health crisis?

Glad you asked. Because a lot. 

The business model of social media relies on large amounts of data collection about its users. When you know the demographics of your users, and what content they seem to like the most, you can serve them tailored content they like and will keep them online longer. Knowing what someone likes can help you place ads targeted to them nudging them to buy stuff. The longer you keep them online, the more ads you can show them. The more ads, the more chances you have of getting them to click and spend their money. The more ad clicks, the more you know about what they like to buy. The more you know about what they like to buy, the more content you can tailor to them. The more content you can tailor, the longer they’ll spend online. The longer they spend online, the more ads you can show them, the more ads…

You get the idea – it’s a feedback loop of getting people as addicted to their devices as possible so you can extract data about them so you can sell them stuff. The whole system is about getting people to shop, and it’s a really dumb thing to risk the mental wellbeing of our teenagers for. (And that’s not to mention the other negative impacts this can have on people’s financial health and the health of the planet, given how many resources often go into material goods, like fast fashion that is often targeted to teens and young adults online.)

This is a serious societal problem. Over half of teens have reported that giving up social media would be difficult. Leaked reports of Facebook’s internal research on its app Instagram concluded it was making body image issues worse for 1 in 3 teen girls. In Britain, 13% of teenage girls struggling with mental health drew a direct line between Instagram and a desire to kill themselves. This stuff has serious consequences, and right now, we’re making the choice to prioritize the ad industry over the mental wellbeing of real people. This is not what a healthy society looks like. You could even call it dystopian. 

Why does banning targeted advertising help?

Biden’s proclamation matters. If you cut off targeted advertising, you short circuit the feedback loop. You cut off the primary reason these companies have for hoovering up as much data as possible and keeping people glued to their screens. It becomes easier to limit the addictive features of social media that are a source of worsened self-esteem, like the quantified popularity contests of how many likes you have versus the people around you. We could limit features like autoplay and infinite scroll that make it so hard to put down our apps. Changing the profit motive and mechanisms would go a long way to remaking the industry, and giving companies more incentive to change their services even without a constant drumbeat of specific, whack-a-mole regulation. 

Social media came into our lives in a big way without anyone fully understanding the consequences. We don’t have that excuse anymore. We know what this stuff does to us and to our teens. To let this go on uninterrupted is to choose the advertising industry over the wellbeing of an entire generation. 

Making the internet a better place to be is an urgent task. Protecting kids and teens must be a central part of how we move forward.

 

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Authors

R.J. Cross

Director, Don't Sell My Data Campaign, PIRG

R.J. focuses on data privacy issues and the commercialization of personal data in the digital age. Her work ranges from consumer harms like scams and data breaches, to manipulative targeted advertising, to keeping kids safe online. In her work at Frontier Group, she has authored research reports on government transparency, predatory auto lending and consumer debt. Her work has appeared in WIRED magazine, CBS Mornings and USA Today, among other outlets. When she’s not protecting the public interest, she is an avid reader, fiction writer and birder.

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