Why do social networks want to attract children and teenagers?

Why do social networks want to attract children and teenagers?

Last February, the New York City Council prosecuted major social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, and YouTube) for “fueling a mental health crisis in youth.” At the same time, there appears to be growing skepticism that social networks are reaping huge benefits from young users. One A new study conducted by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health It is estimated that Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok,

Although the minimum age varies in each network and in each country, the average use of these platforms is between 13 and 14 years. This seems to be the case on paper, but experts emphasize that “in practice, social networks do not show a real desire to block the access of young people – sometimes it seems quite the opposite – which is what the user profile tends to do,” explains Ferran Laloisa, professor. Studies of Information and Communication Sciences at the Open University of Catalonia (UOC), said that “renewal is in a worrying way.”

By analyzing reports, market studies and public surveys, the researchers built a simulation model that calculated how much ad revenue the platforms were getting from young American users. The study found that the platforms, combined, generated nearly $11 billion in ad revenue from these users: $2.1 billion from users ages 12 and under, and $8.6 billion from users ages 13 to 17. . YouTube received the most ad revenue from users under 12, followed by Instagram and Facebook. Instagram received the most ad revenue from users ages 13-17, followed by TikTok and YouTube.

What risks do social media networks pose to these minors? “In childhood and adolescence, executive functions are immature, and this functioning is essential for cognitive processes and thinking. “For this reason, they will not be mature enough to recognize the dangers of some online risks, self-manage the time invested or their critical ability in the face of inappropriate content,” she said. explains Mirchi Martin, Professor of Psychology Studies and Psychology of Educational Sciences at UOC

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“The control mechanisms for creating profiles are sometimes unreliable, and therefore it is easy to lie about age, so that these minors are exposed to content without any filter to protect them,” warns Silvia Martinez, professor of information and communication science studies at the university. University of California.

Some platforms, as Meta did as recently as January, are trying to place specific filters (limiting messages from strangers, maximum usage time warnings, etc.) on profiles registered as minors. However, the truth is that many minors are on these platforms without identifying themselves as such. “It is necessary to take into account the difficulty of obtaining a real number of reach and consumption, especially when we talk about minors,” explains Martinez, who is also the director of the Master’s degree in Social Media: Management and Strategy at the University of Auckland.

The dangers of being simple, consumer content aimed at adults

In the field of communications, Laloisa and Martinez believe that there are four main risks threatening these minors. “The first is negative social comparison: the discrepancy between the dream life that networks usually show and real life is devastating if there is no awareness that these platforms are not an honest reflection of reality,” explains Laluiza. Another big risk is easy access to toxic content, such as hate speech, harassment, violence, inappropriate sex, and the toxic echo of the networks themselves. “Networks feed you what worries you most,” warns Laloisa. In addition, there is also a prevalence of unconstructive values: vulgarity, frivolity, superficiality, and selfishness, they explain.

Martinez also emphasizes the opportunity cost, that is, the fact of using these platforms instead of doing something more enriching, due to the dynamics of their operation. “They seek to keep the user connected for as long as possible, showing them an endless amount of content that adapts to their tastes and preferences,” explains Martinez, who is also a researcher at the GAME group.

“You can always scroll down and find more content (infinite scrolling), and this creates a feeling that if you don’t follow it you might miss something important,” adds Daniel Riera, Director of Informatics, Multimedia and Communication Studies at UOC. For the expert, this has a clear commercial interest on the part of these platforms. Another characteristic that attracts and engages people (people in general and young people in particular) is that “a lot of things happen per minute on the screen, unlike our natural environment, and this makes our brains ‘care’ more about what is displayed.” screen,” he warns.

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Specifically, this constant temptation gives very positive results for platforms in the advertising field, especially thanks to young people up to the age of 17, as the Harvard report confirms. But how can these users generate advertising revenue for these networks? “The consumption time that minors spend on screens and platforms makes them an interesting target audience, because when they feel attracted to a product or service, they convey their desire to their parents,” explains Martinez.

In the same vein, Laloisa warns that this channel is much less regulated than other advertising methods, and that advertisers are willing to pay for it, because it has been revealed that the channel is “very effective.” He adds: “Let us not forget that the children’s audience is a weak audience and easy to manipulate.” According to a Harvard report, platforms are turning to highly personalized algorithmic advertising to match specific user demographics and usage patterns with advertisers’ financial interests.

For this reason, various European institutions have launched measures such as the European Data Protection Regulation, the Digital Services Act, the Digital Markets Act and the decisions of the European Data Protection Committee to introduce specific changes in the management of advertising on these platforms. “Specifically to adapt to these regulations, in the last quarter of 2023 Meta announced a temporary measure that suspended advertising to teens as of last November,” Martinez explains.

Steve Jobs (Apple), Bill Gates (Microsoft), or Sergey Brin (Google) have all publicly explained that they raised their children away from screens. In Silicon Valley, schools without tablets or computers are common, and nannies are contractually prohibited from using cell phones. In Spain, the situation is exactly the opposite, he said Study conducted by UOC and University of Gironain which Merche Martín participates and in which it is reported that more than half of teenagers do not have rules at home for the use of ICT.

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In this line,Common sense report I noticed a difference: Children from high-income families use devices for entertainment less than children from middle- and low-income families. “Often, higher income is associated with a higher level of education and consequent awareness of the risks associated with the use of networks, and having more financial resources multiplies the options available for children’s entertainment (extracurricular activities, social activities, playing sports, etc. .); “Third, low income can be linked to unstable jobs that make family reconciliation and child care difficult,” explains Laloisa, a researcher at the GAME group.

“The characteristics of social networks affect all people, but they are more dangerous for young people, because they are defining their identity and searching for their place in society,” explains Riera. In some cases, some of the risks associated with social media use are in turn warning signs of excessive or problematic use. It could be, according to Martin, worsening academic performance and decreased time spent on outdoor recreational activities: sports, going out with friends, isolation from family and/or friendships, emotional and physical discomfort or cyberbullying, grooming and sexting. “For this reason, it is important that society in general, especially the immediate social context, and especially parents and educators, are aware of this phenomenon, and that they take responsibilities and guide and accompany towards the responsible and healthy use of technologies and social networks,” concludes the psychologist.

(This article was written by Nuria Bigas, from the University of Auckland)

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