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ASA research shows children are registering on social media under false ages

26 July 2013

A new ASA survey commissioned to find out what ads young people see and engage with online, and whether those ads stick to the UK advertising rules, suggests that the majority of young people are registering on sites using false ages.

Our research set out to help us understand better what ads children see when they use social media. It shows that advertisers are acting in good faith by taking account of the registered age of social media account holders when delivering their ads. However, as a result of registering under a false age, many of the children in our survey were presented with ads for age-restricted products including for gambling, alcohol, slimming aids and overtly sexual dating services.

The survey forms part of the ASA’s commitment to ensuring the ads children see are appropriate and responsible.

In summary, our survey reveals that:

  • All but four of the 24 children aged between 11 and 15 who participated registered on a social media site using a false age
  • Ten participants (42% of children) were falsely registered as aged 18 or over
  • Of the 218 ads served to those registered as over 18, 24 (11%) were for products that “must not be directed at people under 18 through the selection of media or the context in which they appear” 
  • Nine participants were aged below the permitted age of registration on at least one social media site 
  • Of the 427 ads the children saw in total, 420, or 98.4%, stuck to the rules

Encouragingly, none of the age-restricted ads contained content that set out to appeal particularly to children.

We’ll be presenting these findings to our Council with a view to exploring whether we need to take a tighter line on age-restricted ads in social media or if further research in this area would be helpful. We’re also drawing this to the attention of the Advertising Code writing body, the Committee of Advertising Practice, and asking whether new guidance for advertisers on targeting ads online is needed.

Our report clearly asks questions of social media owners around the effectiveness of age-verification and whether enough is being done to prevent children from accessing age-restricted content on social media sites. We will be raising these issues with social media companies.

ASA Chief Executive, Guy Parker said: “On the face of it, our survey suggests that advertisers are sticking to the rules but children aren’t. But before we all lay the blame with parents and guardians, we need to be honest: if advertisers and social media companies know that children say they’re older than they are, don’t they have a crucial part to play too? We’ll be talking to them about self-declared age-gating and considering whether we need to take a tougher line. But we all need to be part of this conversation about how best to set the boundaries within which our children explore the world around them.”

ASA Compliance survey - Children and advertising on social media websites (PDF)

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