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One reason social media companies aren't doing more to protect children? Ad revenue


What's holding social media companies back from fully curbing content that's harmful to children? After all, the stakes are high. Last month Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn shared what parents told her after she started looking into the matter.


MARSHA BLACKBURN: Their children had committed suicide. Their children had met a drug dealer. Their children had met a pedophile. Their child had met a sex trafficker. They had been exposed to cyberbullying and had committed suicide. They were looking up ways to commit suicide.

SCHMITZ: One explanation - money. A new study says social media companies, quote, "have overwhelming financial incentives to continue to delay taking meaningful steps to protect children." The report comes from Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and to find out just how overwhelming those financial incentives are, we're joined now by Amanda Raffoul, who's an author of the report. Welcome to the program.

AMANDA RAFFOUL: Thanks for having me.

SCHMITZ: So let's start with the numbers. How much money do you estimate social media companies make from the advertising that they deliver to users 17 and under?

RAFFOUL: So we found that the six major platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, X, which is formerly known as Twitter, and YouTube all derive nearly $11 billion in ad revenue from U.S. youth under 18.

SCHMITZ: That sounds like a lot of money. How does that compare to the other revenue they're making from the other demographics?

RAFFOUL: Well, that depends quite a bit on the platform. For some of the platforms, since they have so few youth users compared to adult users, the proportion of ad revenue overall from minors seems relatively small. But we did find that for some platforms, like Snapchat or TikTok or YouTube, a really sizable proportion of their ad revenue comes from youth under 18. So, for example, Snapchat has, based on our estimates, almost half or 41% of their 2022 ad revenue came from users who were ages 0 to 17.

SCHMITZ: The companies that you're talking about are notably secretive about their data. So how did you come up with these numbers?

RAFFOUL: That's a great question as we know that social media platforms have no legal obligation to release any types of data on the types of content youth are exposed to, the number of youth on their platforms or how much revenue those youth generate for them. So, to answer our question, we gathered data from multiple sources, including business marketing and public data sources. And then we use these numbers to conduct simulation modeling. Simulation modeling is a really rigorous method that helped us to estimate the number of youth users and then how much ad revenue is generated from each of them on the platforms.

SCHMITZ: So I'm curious. You know, what are your takeaways, as a researcher and as an instructor of pediatrics, from this?

RAFFOUL: Well, to our knowledge, this is the first study that offers estimates of how much annual ad revenue comes from users under the age of 18 years old. And in the context of the youth mental health crisis and the associations with poor mental health and social media use for children, I think it's really important for policymakers to take a look at the financial incentives that platforms have to try and keep youth online for as long as possible.

SCHMITZ: And what changes or what actions would you like to see?

RAFFOUL: I think that this study really demonstrates the need for government regulation of social media platforms because they're very unlikely to self-regulate and curb the harms to minors if they're making so much money off of them. So for me, what I would emphasize is that we continue to advocate for greater government legislation of the way platforms operate, especially in the types of content that they're showing to use.

SCHMITZ: That's Amanda Raffoul of Harvard School of Public Health. Thanks for speaking with us.

RAFFOUL: Thank you.

SCHMITZ: And if you or someone you know may be considering self-harm, dial 988 for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or text HOME to 741741.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALPINE SONG, "LOVERS 2") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.