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European Parliament publishes draft report on the addictive design of online services

Published on 24 October 2023

The question

How is the European Parliament looking to combat the exploitation of psychological vulnerabilities through the addictive design of online services?

The key takeaway

The European Parliament has published a draft report (the Report) on the addictive design of online services and consumer protection. They are concerned with the harmful impact of internet-use-related addiction and have invited the European Commission to regulate online services to curtail their addictive nature and prevent platforms from using addictive design features.

The background

The European Parliament has issued the Report in the wake of the comprehensive digital services package passed by European legislators as well as the heightened focus on consumer protection in the region. The Rapporteur was Dutch MEP Kim van Sparrentak who presented the own-initiative Report at a recent meeting of the Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection. The Rapporteur was alarmed that platforms and tech companies exploit psychological vulnerabilities and called for EU legislation protecting users from harm by addictive design.

The development

The Report contends that platforms are designed to be as addictive as possible, using “psychological tricks” to keep users engaged. Some digital services have been found to exploit psychological vulnerabilities (similar to those involved in online gambling addictions) and deploy “gamification” techniques. The Report refers to a number of addictive design features, including infinite scroll, pull-to-refresh page reloads, auto-play functions and personalised recommendations (amongst others). The Report concludes that these addictive design techniques have created the issue of “internet-use-related addiction”.

Of particular concern to the European Parliament is the effect of digital addiction on children and young people. The Report finds that 16–24-year-olds spend an average of seven hours per day online, that “one in four children and young people display ‘problematic’ or ‘dysfunctional’ smartphone use” and “the rise in mental health problems in adolescents might be related to excessive social media use”.
The Report calls on the European Commission (the Commission) to legislate on addictive design. Specifically, the European Parliament have requested a review of the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive (UCPD), the Consumer Rights Directive and the Unfair Contract Terms Directive, with a particular focus on addictive and manipulative design of online services. They have requested that the Commission prohibits the most harmful practices, as these are not currently blacklisted in the UCPD or other EU legislation. They further call on the Commission to impose a fair/neutral design obligation on platform providers.

In addition, the Report specifically calls for a ban on interaction-based recommender systems, particularly hyper-personalised systems which are designed to be addictive and keep users on the platform for as long as possible. Further proposals include a digital “right not to be disturbed”, a list of good practices of design features, and a specific focus on the impact of addictive design features on children and young people.

Why is this important?

The Report indicates a possible shift in attitudes towards online services with the idea that these may be as addictive as other products that are subject to legislative controls (eg tobacco and HFSS food and drink). If the proposals are adopted, these could have wide-reaching consequences, as the Report suggests controls on not just social media sites but a number of other online service platforms, including streaming services, dating apps and online shops. It’s too early to call whether the proposals in the Report will carry through to legislation, and whether all types of online service will be treated the same for regulatory purposes. Curtailing the addictive features within online platforms will also significantly impact advertisers who benefit from users remaining on a platform for as long as possible.

Any practical tips?

It will be some time before any of the Report’s proposals are reflected in regulations, if at all. However, considering the potential impact on platforms, businesses should be aware that these discussions are taking place in Brussels. Businesses should track the progress of this Report and be ready to take proactive steps, including participating in any consultations held by the EU institutions. It may also be prudent to consider if more can be done through product and service design to assist users who wish to have more control over their screen time and platform usage.

Autumn 2023