Britain's advertising watchdog has spotted the blindingly obvious: kids are giving false ages to allow them to sign up to Facebook and other social media sites.
Mark Zuckerberg's free content ad network states that users have to be 13 or over to have a Facebook account. However, the company does not closely control this requirement by, for example, acting as doorman and demanding proof of ID.
The Advertising Standards Authority found that the majority of UK kids in a study had registered on social media sites with a false age. The survey had been commissioned to check up on what ads were flashing past the impressionable eyes of youngsters online.
During its study (PDF), which looked at a tiny sample, the regulator said that 42 per cent of the kids had said they were 18 or over.
Altogether a whopping 83 per cent of the kids had lied about their age on social media. "All but four of the 24 children aged between 11 and 15 who participated registered on a social media site using a false age," it added.
It said in its report:
They were presented with ads for age-restricted products including for gambling, alcohol, slimming aids and overtly sexual dating services – all categories that are subject to strict rules designed to prevent them from being directly targeted at children and young people.
The ASA added that it was not blaming networks such as Facebook for failing to put proper processes in place to determine that the person signing up to its ad-jammed service was over the age of 13. But the watchdog said that the whole issue needed to be looked at. Its chief, Guy Parker, explained:
Our report shows that advertisers had acted in good faith by taking account of the registered age of social media account holders in their delivery of ads. In light of that, it doesn’t seem fair to reprimand them for exposing children to their ads.
But this isn’t the first report that strongly suggests that a significant proportion of children are registering false details online. We need to reflect carefully on an appropriate response.
Parker added that admen needed to have a long, hard look at whether they could do more to prevent kids from gaining access to age-restricted material on social networks.
"They need to ask themselves whether they really are doing all they reasonably can not to target children with ads for age-restricted products or services when they know that a significant chunk of the child population is exposed to those ads," he said.
Facebook has attempted, in arguably a half-arsed way, to tackle the issue of youngsters' access to the site.
For example, earlier this year it launched Graph Search, which immediately raised concerns about perverts using the function to prey on teenagers on the network.
Zuck's crew said at the time that controls would be in place to protect young people by ensuring that 13 to 17-year-olds on the site would only share details such as age and location to Friends, or Friend of Friends in the same age bracket.
As your correspondent noted at the time, there's a major flaw with that concept: there are no controls in place to prevent a male adult from claiming, say, to be a 14-year-old girl who attends a local school. He could then quite easily befriend kids on the network and then use Graph Search for online grooming purposes.
Online age verification is currently on the agenda in Whitehall – where Prime Minister David Cameron has already been attempting to score pre-Election points among Middle England voters by taking credit for forcing ISPs to filter supposedly unpalatable material such as porn at the network level.
The country's largest telcos were in fact cowed into applying blocks to their services in a move to prevent legislative intervention from the government.
The ASA is now extending its regulatory support by making noises, if not outright threats, about social networks.
It remains unclear, however, about how claims made about age online might actually be policed. ®