Political parties are showing partisan, highly charged adverts to teenagers on Facebook and Instagram, Sky News can reveal.
The Children’s Commissioner has described the practice of targeting young people as “irresponsible”.
Sky News has seen 208 political ads shown to 13 to 17-year-olds on Facebook and Facebook-owned Instagram, where advertisers can target campaigns according to age.
The majority of the ads came from the Conservatives, which showed 102 ads to teenagers, mostly featuring Boris Johnson.
Sky News revealed last month that the Tories had welcomed the new prime minister with an online ad blitz costing tens of thousands of pounds.
Labour only showed four ads to 13 to 17-year-olds, but these were extremely partisan.
Two Instagram ads from the party featured a picture of Nigel Farage next to Tommy Robinson, and claimed that: “The only way to stop the far-right from winning is by voting Labour.”
Users were urged to “double tap this and then share it to your story”.
Ads for Change UK featured news articles and videos of Mr Farage, saying that the party “would not stand idly by whilst others whip up fear, division and hatred”.
Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner, who promotes and protects the rights of children, told Sky News this lack of balance could be misleading for young people.
She said: “I have no problem in children receiving information about politics and political parties, but if they are going to target children and do so in a really quite biased and extreme way then I think that is irresponsible.
“I think we have to ask those political parties to think again.”
Ms Longfield also questioned whether teenagers understood that their data – including not only age, but also gender, location and behaviour online – was being used to show them ads.
“I am really concerned about any tech company that uses the information about young people without them knowing,” she said, adding that she feared the information was being used “in a potentially quite irresponsible way”.
Other ads shown to teenagers included a Liberal Democrat ad that described Brexit as “a national embarrassment” and linking to an anti-Brexit petition, and a Green ad featuring a picture of a lamb, which linked to an article called “10 reasons why vegans are supporting the Green Party in 2019”.
The ads were uncovered by transparency researchers using ad.watch, a tool that visualises the data provided by Facebook on political advertising.
Nayantara Ranganathan, who created ad.watch with Manuel Beltrán, told Sky News that it was unclear whether the ads – many of which featured calls to vote in the European elections – were intentionally targeted at teenagers, who cannot vote before the age of 18.
She said: “An advertiser can target ads to specific age ranges or they can also target ads to all age ranges. The minors receiving ads might have been targeted on the basis of other factors, such as the region they live in, or their interests or behaviours.
“It’s the nature of the medium itself, because a lot of minors use Facebook and Instagram, which also happens to be an ad infrastructure, so they become collateral recipients of advertisements.”
Ads for children on traditional media such as television are regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority, which specifies that ads should not employ “direct exhortation” or “exploit their credulity, loyalty, vulnerability or lack of experience”.
However, online political ads are not covered by this regulation, meaning that neither the parties nor Facebook have broken any laws.
Earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called for “new industry-wide standards to control how political campaigns use data” when targeting people online.
Facebook told Sky News that it provided several tools to make advertising data clear to its users, and confirmed that several of the ads – including the Labour ad implying Mr Farage was a far-right figure – received impressions from less than 1% of under-18s.
The Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and representatives from Change UK have been contacted for comment.