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By Jessica Corbett

Researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard University revealed on Dec. 27, 2023, that social media giants made nearly $11 billion in advertising revenue from U.S.-based users younger than 18 last year.

“As concerns about youth mental health grow, more and more policymakers are trying to introduce legislation to curtail social media platform practices that may drive depression, anxiety, and disordered eating in young people,” said senior author Dr. Bryn Austin, a professor and founding director of the Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders.

“Although social media platforms may claim that they can self-regulate their practices to reduce the harms to young people, they have yet to do so,” she continued, “and our study suggests they have overwhelming financial incentives to continue to delay taking meaningful steps to protect children.”

For the study, published Dec. 27 in the journal PLOS ONE, the researchers focused on Google’s YouTube; Meta-owned Facebook and Instagram; Snapchat; TikTok; and Twitter — which its billionaire owner, Elon Musk, recently rebranded as X.

“This is the first known study to estimate social media platform-specific advertising revenue from youth,” the researchers noted.

They continued:

“There were several limitations to our study methods and analysis. We heavily relied upon secondary estimated and projected data, as well as the assumption that youth and adults may see a similar number of advertisements; however… social media platforms do not publicly disclose any data on user base ages, nor the advertising revenue generated from them.”

To build their simulation model, the team used 2021-22 data from Common Sense Media and Pew Research surveys, the market research company eMarketer, the parental control application Qustodio and the U.S. Census Bureau.

They found that in 2022, YouTube had 49.7 million U.S.-based users under 18, followed by TikTok (18.9 million), Snapchat (18 million), Instagram (16.7 million), Facebook (9.9 million) and X (7 million) — from which the companies collectively generated $8.6 billion in ad revenue from users ages 13-17 and another $2.1 billion from those 12 and under.

For users ages 13-17, Instagram led the pack with $4 billion in ad revenue, followed by TikTok ($2 billion) and YouTube ($1.2 billion). For younger children, YouTube was on top at $959.1 million, followed by Instagram ($801.1 million) and Facebook ($137.2 million).

“Our finding that social media platforms generate substantial advertising revenue from youth highlights the need for greater data transparency as well as public health interventions and government regulations,” said lead author Dr. Amanda Raffoul, an instructor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.

Demands for U.S. regulators and lawmakers to rein in Big Tech — particularly to protect children — have mounted in recent years. Bolstering those calls, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy in May issued an advisory calling attention to “the growing concerns about the effects of social media on youth mental health,” as the White House unveiled federal actions to better serve kids online.

In October 2023, the District of Columbia and 41 states led by both Democrats and Republicans filed a pair of federal lawsuits against Meta over features allegedly designed to keep young people hooked on the firm’s platforms, including Facebook and Instagram.

The following month, in a move that Fight for the Future’s Evan Greer, called “absurd and dangerous,” Meta sued the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) after the agency proposed an order that would prohibit the company from monetizing minors’ data.

On Dec. 20, 2023, the FTC suggested significant updates to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

Zamaan Qureshi of the Design It for Us coalition celebrated that “the proposed rule directly targets Big Tech’s toxic business model by requiring the invasive practice of surveillance advertising to be off by default, limiting harmful nudges that keep young people coming back to the platform even when they don’t want to, and including protections against the collection of biometric information.”

Originally published by Common Dreams.

Jessica Corbett is a senior editor and staff writer for Common Dreams.