The Roundtable event was organised both with the New Consumer Agenda in mind, which was published in 2020 and the new European strategy for a better internet for kids (BIK+), which was published in May this year.
The New Consumer Agenda acknowledges the requirement to address specific consumer needs and the needs of children and young people who are exposed to misleading and aggressive commercial practices online. It also stresses the importance of investing more in lifelong consumer education and awareness raising for people at all stages of life from school onwards.
BIK+ aims to complement and support the practical implementation of the existing measures to protect children online, develop young people’s digital skills, and empower them to safely enjoy and shape their life online.
The Roundtable started with a welcome by Dr Hans Martens, European Schoolnet/Better Internet for Kids, followed by a video address from Commissioner Didier Reynders, European Commissioner for Justice, in which both set the scene for the discussions of the day.
Commissioner Reynders spoke about the Commission's continuous efforts on consumer protection and stated that all social media platforms are required to play by the EU’s rules. The Commission has close links with industry and works closely with companies and other stakeholders to ensure that consumers rights are respected and protected. Examples include TikTok’s commitment to the European Commission to align its practices with the EU rules on advertising and consumer protection, and Amazon’s commitment to bring its cancellation practices in line with EU consumer rules.
Afterwards the Commissioner’s address, both June Lowery-Kingston Head of Unit, Accessibility, Multilingualism & Safer Internet, DG CONNECT and Marie-Paule Benassi, Head of Unit, Consumer Enforcement & Redress, DG JUST, welcomed everyone to the Roundtable.
Consumer risks for children and young people online
The first session of the day was led by Prof Dr Eva Lievens, Associate Professor of Law & Technology at Ghent University. She talked about the type of consumer risks children and young people are exposed to and the regulatory responses that are being put in place. During her talk, she explored the online habits of young people and the New Consumer Agenda, including the topics of loot boxes, influencer marketing, and the techniques of dark patterns.
The topic of loot boxes, especially, was widely discussed among the participants. Prof Lievens explained that loot boxes are in-game content that generally includes random items that have relevance in the game (for example weapons, skins, game currency or advancement options). They present a particular risk, however, because they typically encourage gamers to spend more money within the game. That’s why she advocates that paid random content (such as loot boxes) should be clearly disclosed to the consumer, including an explanation of the probabilities of receiving a particular item. Prof Lievens concluded her session by emphasising the need to seek the views of children and young people while working towards a better internet. Access Prof Lievens’ presentation slides here.
The next session focused on social media, moderated by Karl Hopwood from European Schoolnet/Better Internet for Kids. The panel consisted of Prof Dr Simone van der Hof, Professor of Law & Digital Technologies at Leiden University, David Martin from the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), and Andrea Parola from the ICT Coalition for Children Online.
One of the topics discussed by the panel was the role of platforms versus the role of parents while making sure children and young people have a pleasant and safe online experience. Both David Martin and Prof van der Hof advocated during the session that children should have the right to autonomy. The audience also contributed to the discussion on the role of parents in the digital lives of their children. One of the participants wrote in the chat “We should not ask children, parents or teachers to hold the responsibility for badly designed systems”.
The discussion also focused on age verification methods. Although tech companies are providing additional safety features for children and young people, many of these are reliant on knowing that the user is a child. There is plenty of research that highlights the fact that children are lying about their age when signing up to use social media platforms and this means that many of the safety features will not be applied as the platform believes them to be an adult. Some panellists felt strongly that users were being forced to provide a different age in order to be able to use a particular platform. If platforms are aware that children are using their services, then they should assume that the user is a child at the outset and plan accordingly.
The last public session was on the topic of gaming platforms. Dr Valerie Verdoodt, Postdoctoral Researcher in Law & Technology at Ghent University, moderated the session. In preparation for the Roundtable, we published a 'conversation starter’ article by Dr Verdoodt was published on the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) platform discussing on How to address consumer risks for children on social media and in gaming. Read the article here.
The session started with a video presentation by Celia Hodent, a game UX consultant with a PhD in Psychology. She talked about the positive impacts of gaming such as on intelligence, as well as the ethics around gaming. View Celia’s full video presentation here.
This was then followed by a panel discussion between Belgian game streamer Abulic,who shared his personal experiences, Finn Lützow-Holm Myrstad from Forbrukerrådet – the Norwegian Consumer Council, who talked about the experience of consumers with gaming, and Catherine Garcia-van Hoogstraten, Director of Digital Safety at Microsoft, who shared experiences of creating games from the organisational perspective.
Once more, the topic of loot boxes was widely talked discussed by the panel and the participants of the Roundtable. The game streamer Abulic shared his experience with loot boxes and gave some insights into how companies can influence and manipulate gamers while playing. Finn Lützow-Holm Myrstad agreed that there should be rules around loot boxes, as they can have a big influence on gamers. The session ended by discussing the proposed age-appropriate design code for social media and gaming platforms, which is referenced in the European Commission’s new BIK+ strategy launched earlier this year.
Collaborating across Europe
The Roundtable concluded with a closed session for Safer Internet Centre and European Consumer Centre representatives. First, a brief overview was given of the two networks and the work that they are doing respectively to protect children and young people online from unfair commercial practices. This was then followed by breakout room discussions on the topics of gaming, influencer marketing, social media platforms, and scams and subscription traps. Representatives from Safer Internet Centres and European Consumer Centres discussed potential areas of future collaboration on these topics.
This Roundtable on child and youth consumer protection in digital markets is just the start of the discussion. Through the new BIK+ strategy and other instruments, the European Commission will seek to work with a range of stakeholders to address consumer risks for children and young people online, and will continue to foster closer collaboration between European Consumer Centres and Safer Internet Centres in this regard. For more information about the network of Safer Internet Centres, visit the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) website. To learn more about European Consumer Centres, visit the website of the European Commission.
A fuller report from the Roundtable will be available later in the year and child and youth consumer protection in digital markets will be given a further focus in the December 2022 edition of the BIK bulletin. Subscribe to the BIK bulletin to ensure that you receive it directly to your inbox.
Get involved in ongoing discussions
If you’d like to be part of the ongoing discussions around protecting, empowering and respecting children and young people in the digital world, join us online at the 2022 edition of the Safer Internet Forum.
The Safer Internet Forum is a key annual international conference in Europe where policy makers, researchers, law enforcement bodies, youth, parents and carers, teachers, NGOs, industry representatives, experts and other relevant actors come together to discuss the latest trends, opportunities, risks, and solutions related to child online safety and making the internet a better place.
This year’s edition will take place on Thursday, 27 October 2022 with a theme of A Digital Decade for children and youth: BIK+ to protect, empower and respect! Find out more and register here– hurry, registration is set to close on Friday, 14 October 2022.