Immersive and addictive technologies Contents


1.Digital technologies are making ever increasing demands on people’s time and attention. According to Ofcom, people in the UK check their smartphone every 12 minutes, and one in five spend more than 40 hours a week online.4 Among young people, 12-to-15-year-olds spend an estimated 13 hours 48 minutes per week playing video games.5 While these technologies make a significant positive contribution to people’s personal and professional lives, there is growing concern that overuse can have a detrimental effect, with four in ten adults feeling that they “spend too much time online”.6 Ofcom’s research also suggests that 44% of parents of 12-to-15-year-olds find it hard to control their child’s screen time—concerns that are shared by an increasing proportion of young people in that age range.7

2.The way in which certain digital technologies are deliberately engineered to capture users’ attention or draw them back to the platform was raised with us by former Google design ethicist and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, Tristan Harris, when he gave evidence to our previous inquiry on disinformation and ‘fake news’. He told us that:

There is a set of techniques that are used in the tech industry under the guise of creating engagement that mask other problems like addiction. They are basically about hijacking the deeper underlying instincts of the human mind.8

The greater the length of time that people can be enticed into spending online, the greater the chances of them being monetised through online advertising or in-game merchandising.

3.This inquiry built on that evidence by looking at a range of social media platforms and other data-driven technologies. That included internet-connected video games, particularly those operating on a ‘free-to-play’ model, which we will explore further in Chapter 4.9 Three quarters of 5-to-15-year-olds play online games, and, like social media, these games collect vast amounts of information about their users and operate business models based on maximising player engagement in the manner Tristan Harris outlined.10 We were interested in how games and applications that people interact with every day, and other potentially data-rich technologies such as virtual and augmented reality, combine people’s data with certain design practices to maximise the time people spend using them.

What are ‘immersive’ and ‘addictive’ technologies?

4.Immersive technologies integrate virtual content with the physical environment, thus ‘immersing’ the user in a simulated experience. The term often refers to technologies such as virtual and augmented reality, which offer varying levels of immersion in digital worlds.11 Increasingly, games and social media are making use of such technologies, especially augmented reality: for example, in Pokémon GO players discover characters on their smartphone depending on their actual location, while Instagram and Snapchat both offer image-enhancing ‘filters’ or shopping features based on real-world images captured through a smartphone’s camera.

5.The experience of these technologies differs significantly depending on both the type of product and the individual user. For example, the games industry alone includes casual games that are designed to deliver a satisfying game experience on a smartphone in under a minute, games that are built around 20 minute battles with other players around the world, and long-form games that offer hours of storytelling and adventure. Games also feature highly diverse ‘mechanics’—rules that determine how a game works—and we acknowledge at the outset that not all games or game mechanics have the same effects on all users, so any legislative response to the risks they present must be similarly nuanced.

6.We have considered the links between immersion and the power of a technology to capture people’s attention or influence their behaviour. In evidence to us, representatives of the games industry repeatedly drew parallels between gaming and other absorbing hobbies such as reading or watching television. However, we would argue that games are inherently more immersive than such activities because their interactivity means players actively shape their own experience. Timea Tabori, the national co-ordinator for Women in Games in Scotland and an Engine Programmer at Rockstar North, told us:

I strongly believe that games are an interactive medium because of the way that we engage with them and they are a lot more active than TV or movies or whatever that are a bit more passive. They are colloquially referred to as lean-back entertainment because you are not engaged, whereas games are lean-forward entertainment because you are fully engaged. Therefore, I do think that they can have a real impact on the way we perceive the world and the way we interact with the world.12

7.Similarly, we heard that the psychological effects of virtual reality may be amplified by the user’s direct participation in it. Sarah Jones of Birmingham City University told us that from her experiences of VR, she believes that:

If you are reading a book, you have this barrier. If you are watching a film, you have a barrier. When you are talking about an immersive experience, when you are talking about virtual reality, you are talking about jumping into that frame, you are actually part of the environment. You might not have active agency so much in the world, but you are really part of it. That means that the whole experience is intensified massively.13

8.The concept of technological ‘addictions’ is highly contested, and there is a notable difference between clinical and colloquial uses of the term, especially in the context of technology use. Academics are divided on whether it is accurate to talk of people being ‘addicted’ to digital technologies, because of the differences between those technologies and the substances or behaviours that are inherently harmful and on which the diagnostic criteria for addictions is typically based, such as smoking tobacco.14 On the other hand, ‘addictive technologies’ is widely used in a colloquial sense to refer to platforms or devices that people perceive themselves to have a dependency on, and it is a term that some people readily use to describe their own experiences outside of a clinical context without it necessarily meaning they are experiencing harm.

Evidence and visits

9.Our inquiry broke new ground in interrogating the business and design strategies of a range of major technology platforms and holding them to account for the effects of their products on users. To inform our understanding of the potential effects of immersive technologies we spoke to academics and clinicians, and sought the views of people for whom social media and video games are integral to their personal and professional lives. Over the course of 12 sessions we took oral evidence from a range of technology companies, including social media platforms and games makers who had not previously appeared before a Select Committee. We also undertook four visits, including to companies working on these technologies, to see their work at first hand.

10.We thank all those who shared their knowledge and experiences with us during the inquiry, especially those who have been open and frank about the negative consequences that these technologies have had on them or their loved ones. We also thank our Specialist Advisers to the inquiry, Professor Anna Cox and Dr Charles Kriel, for their invaluable insights and expertise, which helped us to grapple with the complexities of these technologies and the vague and opaque information we sometimes received from the companies behind them.

11.In contrast, we were struck by how difficult it was to get full and clear answers from some of the games and social media companies we spoke to and were disappointed by the manner in which some representatives engaged with the inquiry. We felt that some representatives demonstrated a lack of honesty and transparency in acknowledging what data is collected, how it is used and the psychological underpinning of how products are designed, and this made us question what these companies have to hide. It is unacceptable that companies with millions of users, many of them children, should be so ill-equipped to discuss the potential impacts of their products.

12.Having struggled to get clear answers and useful information from companies across the games industry in particular, we hope that our inquiry and this report serve to focus all in the industry—particularly large, multinational companies whose games are played all over the world—on their responsibilities to protect their players from potential harms and to observe the relevant legal and regulatory frameworks in all countries their products reach.

Legislative context

13.Our inquiry took place alongside consultations on a number of relevant regulatory measures including the Government’s Online Harms White Paper and the Information Commissioner’s Office’s ‘Age Appropriate Design Code’. We will demonstrate that there are clear ways in which immersive technologies already come under the scope of the regulatory framework envisaged in the Online Harms White Paper, for example in protecting children from cyber-bullying or the risks of grooming. The White Paper and ICO code also recognise “excessive screen time” as an emerging challenge, and we will outline different ways that manifests across immersive technologies, as well as highlighting the need for clarity and action from Government on other potential online harms arising from the use of these technologies.

Structure of this report

14.In this report, we build on the newly established concept of online harms to explore potential personal and societal effects of immersive technologies. The report outlines a range of specific psychosocial and financial harms related to the use of these technologies and then explains how certain design practices and business models exacerbate those harms. It then explores positive ways legislators and industry can address both those problems and some broader structural challenges we have heard about during the inquiry.

4 Ofcom, Communications Market Report, (2 August 2018), p 14 and 59

6 Ofcom, Communications Market Report, (2 August 2018), p 19

8 Oral evidence taken on 22 May 2018, HC (2017–19) 363, Q3147

9 For the sake of brevity, we shall refer to the playing of video games as ‘gaming’ and the people who do so as ‘players’ or ‘gamers’ interchangeably. We acknowledge that this use of the term ‘gaming’ is distinct from its application with regards to gambling, and that the term ‘gamers’ is contested among some groups.

11 Virtual reality (VR) uses technology to simulate an interactive, three-dimensional environment, and augmented reality (AR) uses it to superimpose a virtual object on to a real-world environment.

12 Q790

13 Q16

14 Q20

Published: 12 September 2019