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Social media platforms earned $11 billion last year from kids in the U.S.

Major social media platforms Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, X (formerly Twitter), and YouTube collectively earned nearly $11 billion in advertising revenue last year from kids in the U.S., reveals a new study by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

This study provides the first estimates of the number of young users, under the age of 18, on these platforms and the amount of annual ad revenue they generate.

Kids, social media, and mental health

As concerns about the impact of social media on kids’ mental health continue to grow, more and more policymakers are introducing legislation to curb harmful practices that may contribute to depression, anxiety, and disordered eating among young people.

Bryn Austin, senior author and professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, highlights the urgent need for effective measures.

“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,” said Austin.

Uncovering the data

To estimate the number of kids on these social media platforms and their related ad revenue, the researchers utilized a combination of public survey and market research data from 2021 and 2022.

By leveraging population data from the U.S. Census, as well as survey data from Common Sense Media and Pew Research, they were able to estimate the number of users under the age of 18 in the U.S.

Furthermore, data from market research company eMarketer and the parental control app Qustodio provided insights into the platforms’ projected gross ad revenue for 2022, as well as the average number of minutes young users spend on each platform.

What the researchers learned

The study reveals a breakdown of youth users and associated ad revenue for each platform in 2022. YouTube had the largest user base, with 49.7 million U.S.-based users under the age of 18.

TikTok followed with 18.9 million users, while Snapchat and Instagram had 18 million and 16.7 million users, respectively. Facebook and X, formerly known as Twitter, had 9.9 million and 7 million users, respectively.

The platforms collectively generated close to $11 billion in ad revenue from these young users, with $2.1 billion attributed to users ages 12 and under and $8.6 billion from users ages 13-17.

Notably, YouTube topped the list, deriving the highest ad revenue from users 12 and under ($959.1 million), followed by Instagram ($801.1 million) and Facebook ($137.2 million).

In the 13-17 age group, Instagram claimed the highest ad revenue, totaling $4 billion, with TikTok ($2 billion) and YouTube ($1.2 billion) following closely behind.

Snapchat emerged as the platform with the greatest share of its overall 2022 ad revenue originating from users under 18, accounting for 41%.

TikTok came in second with 35%, followed by YouTube with 27% and Instagram with 16%.

Limitations and implications

The researchers acknowledge the study’s limitations, primarily stemming from the reliance on estimations and projections based on public survey and market research sources.

Social media platforms do not disclose user age data or advertising revenue data by age group, making precise measurements challenging.

Nonetheless, lead author Amanda Raffoul, an instructor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, emphasizes the urgent need for change resulting from these findings.

“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,” Raffoul said.

Accountability for social media and kids

These compelling results provide a comprehensive understanding of the financial impact of social media platforms on the youth demographic.

Moving forward, these findings should serve as a catalyst for further research and policy development to safeguard the mental health and overall welfare of our younger generation.

In summary, this study is a clarion call for greater scrutiny and accountability of social media platforms. The substantial revenue generated from young users underscores the urgency for more transparent data practices and the implementation of robust public health measures and government oversight.

The full study was published in the journal PLoS ONE.


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