Social media is fundamentally changing the way we interact and communicate with each other. This report considers the latest evidence in the battle being waged for our attention. Technologies like social media and many forms of video games are designed to stimulate users and reward them for spending as much time on them as possible. The 2019 Ofcom ‘Media Nations’ report shows that on average 18-to-34-year-olds spend more time each day on YouTube and playing video games than they do watching live television. Further to this, according to Ofcom, amongst all adults, people spend as much time each day watching YouTube as they do BBC 2, Channel 4 and Channel 5 combined.
The arrival of 5G mobile technology is expected to further increase consumer demand for content. The recent ‘5G Consumer Potential’ report published by Ericsson, based on over 35,000 online interviews of people aged between 15 and 69 across 22 countries proposed that, “Three hours’ more video content will be consumed on mobile devices weekly when away from home, of which one hour will be on AR [augmented reality]/VR [virtual reality] glasses in a 5G future.”
The film director Steven Spielberg made VR a central feature of his 2018 film ‘Ready Player One’, set in a dystopian future where people spend more time in a virtual world than the real one. He said of this project, “I think in the future VR is going to be the super drug. The message of the film is simply, it’s your choice. Where do you want to spend the majority of your time? Do you want to spend it with real people in a real world, which is often harder than spending it in a virtual world where you can be the person you always wanted to be”.
Yet alongside the use of rapidly developing technologies such as virtual and augmented reality, people are becoming increasingly aware of the power of everyday digital platforms, including games and social media, to capture their attention and immerse them in a digital world—sometimes at the expense of other priorities. For many, these technologies serve an entirely positive function; however, for the minority who struggle to maintain control over their use of digital technologies, or that of another under their care, this can be a source of serious harm.
In this report we build on the newly established principle of ‘online harms’ by considering potential psychosocial and financial harms associated with the use of immersive technologies. Following the World Health Organisation’s formal designation of ‘gaming disorder’, we have heard calls from gamers, academics, and clinicians for urgent action to better understand and address the condition. While gaming disorder is a relatively new area of understanding, immersive technology providers also have clear responsibilities to protect users from well-established online harms including bullying and harmful content. We also consider the effects of disordered spending within games, and consider the links between game design mechanics such as loot boxes and gambling.
The potential harms outlined in this report can be considered the direct result of the way in which the ‘attention economy’ is driven by the objective of maximising user engagement. This report explores how data-rich immersive technologies are driven by business models that combine people’s data with design practices to have powerful psychological effects.
Our long and technically complex inquiry, which included 12 oral evidence sessions and four visits, broke new ground for Parliament in holding major games and social media platforms to account. For the first time, representatives of technology companies including Epic Games—the makers of Fortnite—Snapchat and Instagram appeared before a Select Committee to answer questions about the design of their games and platforms. While much of the discussion of the Government’s forthcoming online harms legislation has been framed around social media, there are many ways in which immersive technologies including games and virtual reality come under its scope. We intend for this report to inform understanding of, and the debate around, those technologies as the Government introduces a new regulatory framework to tackle online harms. Whilst we recognise that the vast majority of people gain pleasure from social media and online gaming, we must balance that against the potential harms that can occur.
1 Ofcom, (7 August 2019)
2 Ericsson, , (May 2019), p 5
3 “”, Los Angeles Times, 23 March 2018
Published: 12 September 2019