How Facebook Advertising Harms Children

The Wall Street Journal today has a must-read article for anyone worried about the invasiveness of social media, particularly its unseemly targeting of unsuspecting minors. In an article titled, "Nude Webcams and Diet Drugs: The Facebook Ads Teens Aren't Supposed to See," Jeff Elder writes about the vulturous nature of Facebook advertising, the way ads with very adult content target the news feeds of minors.

The article begins with Elder writing about recent ads "featuring young women in alluring poses." According to Elder, 

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Some of the ads were configured to reach young teens, who were invited to join an app called Ilikeq that let others rate their attractiveness, comment on their photos and say if they would like to date them.

The case offers a glimpse into how young Facebook users are sometimes exposed to ads inappropriate for them. A 14-year-old girl in Washington state said she "liked" an ad that led to the Facebook page of a nude webcam-modeling site. A 17-year-old boy in an Oakland, Calif., neighborhood beset by gun violence repeatedly saw an ad for a concealed-carry handgun holster.

That's not all. Elder reports:

Facebook is also a hub for diet ads, some of which have reached teens younger than its minimum age for seeing these, which is 18.

Ads for diet products containing a substance called HCG have run on Facebook. HCG, a hormone produced during pregnancy, is approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a prescription drug for infertility. But the agency, in a 2011 news release headed "HCG Diet Products Are Illegal," said HCG doesn't help with weight loss and isn't approved for over-the-counter sale for any purpose.

A Florida outfit that has run Facebook ads in the past uses an "HCG Diet Kits" Facebook page as an online storefront to sell HCG serum and syringes. The page is most popular with Facebook users aged 13 to 24, according to Facebook's statistics. On Feb. 20, the page posted "Back in stock!" and listed prices for its diet-shots kits to its Facebook following.

Tawdry, predatory and unacceptable: this is the landscape of much of social media; much of the Internet, actually. Though we certainly didn't need additional evidence, Elder's article provides further confirmation of the risk of leaving children at the mercy of their unguided curiosity. What's at stake are the precious lives of children and their vulnerability to a kind of kidnapping. As I once wrote, this kidnapping "doesn’t involve any direct human contact . . . It’s not physical theft; it is soul theft. It is the trauma to a child’s psychology, self-image and worldview that comes from browsing the Internet. It is the result of roaming online unsupervised, without warnings about whom to run from or avoid."

For more information about how Facebook ad targeting works, see this special feature from the Wall Street Journal. See also Jeff Elder's article "5 Things to Do to Protect Teens Who are Using Facebook."

And now, I'm going to pray.

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"Saving Students on Social Media"

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