Safeguarding children in the virtual world of esports – lessons to be learnt from the real world
The perils of the virtual world
Toxic teammates and vexatious trolls (people who intentionally inflame and antagonise others online) – the internet can be a treacherous landscape for anyone to navigate. This has become compounded in recent years with games that were traditionally targeted at adult markets now being fully accessible to children, at least in part by being playable on mobile devices. The financial implications of online features such as loot boxes (described as being psychologically akin to gambling and explored in great detail in our article) are becoming increasingly problematic. Furthermore, the growing interactivity between users online, accelerated in large part by the proliferation of social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, is making internet users increasingly susceptible to manipulation and ever more subtle advertising. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is aware of this and has taken a strong stance on marketing communications being “obviously identifiable” on social media. As if the risks of the virtual world weren't already clear enough, in April 2020 the ASA issued a reminder to the gambling industry highlighting the illegality of its attempts to advertise gambling to minors and those rendered vulnerable by COVID-19.
While the average adult might be savvy to these risks, the same cannot always be said for minors, who increasingly spend more of their formative years growing up on the internet. This applies to those at the professional end of the spectrum; many professional players start playing to a high competitive standard from very young ages. It also applies to the millions of young people who now have unprecedented access to gaming and the internet through mobile phones.
Protecting the most vulnerable – a guiding star
The critical need for the safeguarding of children has been an important issue for esports regulatory bodies and child protection organisations. Esports bodies such as the Esports Integrity Commission (ESIC), one of the most sophisticated bodies in the industry, have attempted to take a lead on child protection matters in esports. UNICEF have also committed a great deal of resources to understanding the issues unique to young people on the internet and providing recommendations to organisations operating in this space. Despite this awareness, safeguarding in esports is far less advanced than in more established industries, both on a national and international level. In August 2019, ESIC published introductory guidance on the Importance of Child Protection in esports (the Guidance). The Guidance highlights the emotional, physical, financial and sexual consequences of the light-touch approach to safeguarding which esports organisations are currently taking.
The Guidance flags the areas which pose "a foreseeable risk of harm to children," ranging from the direct and unsupervised access coaches have to children, to unsupervised communication platforms, and the relaxed stance many esports organisations are taking to the age restriction of games. The Guidance then suggests steps which can be taken to safeguard against those risks. It encourages:
- the publishing of guidance and codes of conduct which clearly set out the expected behaviours to be observed when dealing with children;
- organisations to introduce rules and regulations regarding participation with and access to children, giving organisations set procedures to follow in the event of safeguarding violations;
- the establishment of clear reporting mechanisms, allowing suspicious behaviour to be reported; and
- a responsive reporting system whereby reports are taken seriously, and all possible action is taken to safeguard the child in question.
Child protection – the UK legislative position
In the UK there are laws in place to safeguard children from exploitation – these rules apply to a child in esports irrespective of whether that child believes that playing games constitutes work. For example, the Children and Young Persons Act 19331 imposes strict limitations on the employment of children of compulsory school age (i.e. 16 and under). These children are not allowed to work:
- before 7am or after 7pm;
- for more than one hour before school;
- for more than four hours without taking a break of at least one hour;
- for more than two hours on school days/Sundays and five hours (if 13-14 years old) or eight hours (if 15-16 year olds) on Saturdays (during term time); and
- in any work that may be harmful to their health, well-being or education.
Further requirements are applied by some local councils in addition to national restrictions on child employment which require performance licences for sporting events where the child is paid.
Beyond employment restrictions, other UK legislation exists to safeguard children. The Video Recordings Act 1984, in combination with the Pan European Game Information (PEGI) rating system, prohibits the supply of age-restricted games to children. While there is significant debate as to the effectiveness of this legislation today, the point remains that this legislative framework exists to safeguard children – over time this framework will likely become more specific and targeted towards online-specific issues.
Safeguarding in traditional sports – a real-world example
While the safeguarding of children in esports is in its infancy, the UK's approach to safeguarding in the context of more traditional sports is far more established; this provides a useful template for the future. For example, the UK's Football Association (FA) is required to maintain safeguarding policies which comply with the NSPCC’s Standards for Safeguarding and Protecting Children in Sport. As a result, the FA has implemented comprehensive guidance, policies, procedures and regulations; from mandatory DBS checks for coaches to a Designated Safeguarding Officer network. Ideally, a similar approach should be adopted by esports; however, there is a significant inconsistency in rules applicable to esports among different jurisdictions. This makes the creation of an overarching set of regulations hard to implement by a single body. This also means that esports organisations and tournament organisers must be aware of international laws and regulations, as well as those applicable to their own country.
Technical evolution and proliferation have put computer games into the hands of more people (and by extension, children). This has created new markets and opportunities for developers and esports organisations alike. These organisations have a responsibility to ensure that those who are consuming their products (either by playing or watching them be played) are safe to do so.
Organisations working with young people in esports should take steps to:
- understand the specific landscape that applies to an organisation’s specific local requirements (such as employment and working rights of young people);
- collaborate with and implement the advice of leading organisations publishing guidance on the specific risks associated with young people and the internet (such as the ESIC’s Guidance, UNICEF’s guidance and traditional sports guidance such as that provided by the NSPCC); and
- seek specific advice when implementing new features or products, specifically where there is any exposure to children or potential for features or products to be considered gambling.
1. Note, Northern Ireland and Scotland have their own corresponding legislation.