A Study with a Warning

Children’s Vulnerability to Online Games

Barcelona (E), June 2016 - Children are increasingly spending time online, abandoning the TV to seek out information and fun on the internet. Now that the internet has surpassed television as an advertising medium in Europe, children are even more exposed to online marketing strategies. A EU-funded study performed by the UOC's Open Evidence, along with the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Block de Ideas warns of the vulnerability of children to online games and reveals that the majority of the 25 most popular ones contain advertisements that could have a negative impact on children's behaviour. 

The study, "The impact of marketing through social media, online games and mobile applications on children's behaviour", is the first of its kind to analyse this in depth at a European level to better understand the scope and impact of online marketing among children. It includes a survey of 6,400 parents (aged 25 to 65); of children between the ages of 6 and 14; and 16 focus groups with children aged 11 to 12 and/or parents from 8 European countries (France, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Poland, Italy, Sweden and United Kingdom). 

It also contains an in-depth analysis of the 25 most popular online games. These include "advergames" created by companies that want to publicize their brands or games in app format offered by the main platforms: Apple iTunes, Google Play, and Facebook. The study also includes two behavioural experiments with children aged 6 to 12 from Spain and the Netherlands and a review of gaming literature and regulations that encompasses the 28 EU Member States, Norway, and Iceland.

UOC professor Francisco Lupiáñez, co-founder of Open Evidence and researcher on the project, explains that "... the study confirms the need for a more solid and  consistent protection of children as consumers and provides new evidence that will help further our understanding of children as potentially vulnerable consumers and marketing practices that can be considered unfair for this type of consumer".

Key conclusions

On protection measures

  1. In general terms, none of the games analysed has protective measures adapted to children's level of understanding, such as prompts to take a break or warnings so that they can tell the difference between the adverts and the game. Most of the protective measures target the parents, with links to privacy policies, terms of use, or information about parental control tools.
  2. Children do not receive the same level of protection against the possible adverse effects of online marketing in all European countries. In fact, marketing targeting children is regulated slightly differently in each country, and parents apply different models for supervising their children's online activities:
  3. Although there is a broad legal framework, developments in technology and online social environments can easily outstrip existing regulation. Self-regulation of marketing to children has been implemented in almost all EU member countries as a flexible way to respond to these advancements. However, on occasion, such initiatives are criticized because they do not adequately restrict the use of marketing practices that do not openly disclose their commercial intent and because their scope varies from country to country.
  4. Most parents do not view online marketing targeting their children as a significant risk and think that it will not affect their children. Consequently, although parents play an important role in protecting their children from the perils of the internet, they often do not have the necessary preparation to do so effectively. How parents control their children's online behaviour also varies depending on the country. For example, French parents intervene less in their children's online activities, while Swedish parents are more actively engaged and apply more restrictions.

The negative effects of online marketing on children's behaviour

  1. The two behavioural studies carried out in children aged 6 to 12 revealed that marketing practices have a significant impact on children's behaviour.
  2. The "advergames" that promote energy snacks induce a higher food intake among children. This indicates that the advertisements have a subliminal effect on children and influence their behaviour without them realizing it.
  3. Exposure to prompts to make in-app purchases to continue and/or improve the game also has an impact on their behaviour. Younger children are the most vulnerable: they buy without understanding the purchase prompts or buy thinking that they are using toy money.