Are Social Media Platforms Exploiting US Youth for Billions in Ad Revenue?

Concerns about the adverse effects of social media on youth mental health have been mounting, prompting policymakers to explore legislation

[Dec. 28, 2023: JD Shavit, The Brighter Side of News]

Concerns about the adverse effects of social media on youth mental health have been mounting, prompting policymakers to explore legislation. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

In a groundbreaking study led by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, it has been revealed that social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, X (formerly Twitter), and YouTube, collectively amassed a staggering $11 billion in advertising revenue from American users under the age of 18 in the year 2022.

This eye-opening report, published in the esteemed journal PLOS ONE, sheds light on the previously undisclosed financial dimension of social media's impact on the younger generation.

Concerns about the adverse effects of social media on youth mental health have been mounting, prompting policymakers to explore potential legislative measures to curb practices that may contribute to depression, anxiety, and disordered eating among young people.

Bryn Austin, a professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences and the senior author of the study, remarked, "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, and our study suggests they have overwhelming financial incentives to continue to delay taking meaningful steps to protect children."

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The researchers employed a comprehensive approach, utilizing publicly available survey and market research data from both 2021 and 2022 to estimate the number of youth users on these platforms and the annual advertising revenue attributed to them.

To estimate the population of users under 18 on these platforms in the United States, the researchers drew upon data from the U.S. Census, as well as survey data from Common Sense Media and Pew Research.

Furthermore, estimations of each platform's projected gross ad revenue for 2022 and users' average daily usage minutes were derived from data provided by eMarketer, a renowned market research company, and Qustodio, a parental control app. These data points were then used to construct a simulation model that provided a robust estimate of the advertising revenue generated by these platforms from young U.S. users.

Estimated number of U.S.-based youth users of six social media platforms, by age group, 2022. (CREDIT: PLOS)

In the findings of this comprehensive study, YouTube emerged as the platform with the largest user base among individuals under 18 in 2022, boasting 49.7 million U.S.-based users in this age group. TikTok followed closely behind with 18.9 million young users, while Snapchat and Instagram recorded 18 million and 16.7 million users, respectively. Facebook, which has experienced a shift in popularity towards older demographics, still managed to retain 9.9 million users under 18, and X, formerly Twitter, had 7 million.

Collectively, these social media behemoths raked in an astonishing $11 billion in ad revenue from their youthful users, with $2.1 billion attributed to users aged 12 and under and an overwhelming $8.6 billion originating from users aged 13 to 17.

Estimated annual U.S. advertising revenue from users under 18 years of age across social media platforms, 2022. (CREDIT: PLOS)

YouTube led the pack in terms of ad revenue from users aged 12 and under, amassing a staggering $959.1 million, closely followed by Instagram with $801.1 million and Facebook with $137.2 million. For users aged 13 to 17, Instagram emerged as the frontrunner, reaping $4 billion in ad revenue, trailed by TikTok with $2 billion and YouTube with $1.2 billion. The study also shed light on the revenue distribution within these platforms, with Snapchat deriving the highest share of its overall 2022 ad revenue from users under 18 at 41%, followed by TikTok at 35%, YouTube at 27%, and Instagram at 16%.

It is crucial to note that the study does come with its share of limitations, primarily stemming from the reliance on estimations and projections derived from publicly available survey and market research sources. Social media platforms currently do not disclose user age data or advertising revenue data categorized by age groups.

Estimated annual percent of total U.S. advertising revenue from users under 18 years of age across social media platforms, 2022. (CREDIT: PLOS)

Nevertheless, Amanda Raffoul, the lead author of the study and an instructor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, emphasized, "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."

Zachary Ward, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Harvard Chan School, also lent his expertise as a co-author to this groundbreaking research.

The revelations from this Harvard-led study underscore the pressing need for increased scrutiny of the practices of social media giants, particularly in relation to their younger user base. As adolescents and pre-teens increasingly immerse themselves in the digital world, concerns about their well-being are taking center stage, with questions about the social media industry's responsibilities and accountability coming to the forefront.

The staggering $11 billion in ad revenue that these platforms generated from American users under 18 in 2022 serves as a stark reminder of the financial stakes involved. While social media platforms continue to face mounting pressure to address the potential harms they may inflict on young minds, the economic incentives that drive their advertising revenue are undeniable.

The battle between safeguarding youth mental health and maximizing profits in the digital age is far from over, and as the study indicates, greater data transparency, public health interventions, and government regulations may be necessary to strike a balance that protects the well-being of the youngest members of our society.

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Joshua Shavit
Joshua ShavitScience and Good News Writer
Joshua Shavit is a bright and enthusiastic 17-year-old student with a passion for sharing positive stories that uplift and inspire. With a flair for writing and a deep appreciation for the beauty of human kindness, Joshua has embarked on a journey to spotlight the good news that happens around the world daily. His youthful perspective and genuine interest in spreading positivity make him a promising writer and co-founder at The Brighter Side of News.