Technology companies must not suck children further into their websites and apps with psychological devices such as Facebook’s “like” button or Snap’s “streaks”, according to draft guidelines from the UK’s tech regulator.
The new code on safeguarding the privacy of users under 18, which is expected to come into force this year, would cover apps, connected toys, social media platforms, online games, educational websites and streaming services.
Among its 16 points is a ban on so-called “nudge techniques” that try to tempt users into further engagement.
“You should not exploit unconscious psychological processes (such as associations between certain colours or imagery and positive outcomes, or human affirmation needs) to this end,” the Information Commissioner’s Office’s code said.
So-called “streaks” reward Snapchat users who send messages to one another on consecutive days with special emojis, while “like” buttons allow Facebook users to affirm one another’s posts and pictures.
“Reward loops or positive reinforcement techniques (such as likes and streaks) can also nudge or encourage users to stay actively engaged with a service, allowing the online service to collect more personal data,” the report said.
Breaching the guidelines will carry potential fines under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation of up to €20m or 4 per cent of global turnover, whichever is bigger.
Tech companies have already responded to GDPR, which came into force last year, with WhatsApp banning all users under 16-years-old, and Snap reducing the amount of data it collects on them.
But politicians and activists have remained concerned that addictive technologies enable companies to collect vast troves of information about teenagers without their full understanding, or parental oversight.
The guidelines would also force companies to introduce “high privacy” settings by default for children, and stop collecting their location data.
But they would allow businesses to profile children if they could “demonstrate a compelling reason for profiling, taking account of the best interests of the child”.
Snap and Facebook did not immediately reply to requests for comment. In response to the ICO’s consultation, Facebook said it had stricter default privacy settings for teenagers and “additional behind-the-scenes protection”.