August 22, 2019
An important issue that the esports industry faces is child protection – there is a duty on everyone in esports to protect children from harm, although (taken as a whole across the industry) there does not currently appear to be a significant amount of resource dedicated specifically to doing so. It is however a particularly pressing challenge for stakeholders in esports to address, because of the number of children engaged in esports, the amount of activity that takes place online (which is often unsupervised, or very lightly supervised), and the fact that there is no governing body that has yet taken a firm lead in addressing the issue (meaning each organisation must actively address the issue itself).
A failure to adequately protect children from harm could have serious consequences, primarily of course as a direct result of the harm itself to individual children, but also in terms of consequential liability and reputational damage for the esports organisation(s) concerned. There have been a number of high profile examples of such failures very recently in traditional sports, and esports can take the opportunity to learn from those experiences (as well as the developed and sophisticated processes that currently exist in many sports in order to protect children).
Equally, having robust procedures in place can provide an esports organisation’s stakeholders, participants, customers and commercial partners with assurance that a safe environment exists for children, which can have a number of positive benefits (including driving participation).
ESIC wants to raise awareness of this important issue, and it has therefore – with assistance from ESIC Disciplinary Panel member, Richard Bush of Bird & Bird LLP (a senior lawyer with significant experience in the area of child protection) – put together this introductory guidance note to help ESIC’s members, and members of the wider esports community, to consider the steps they might take in order to protect children from harm in esports.
WHAT IS MEANT BY ‘HARM’ TO CHILDREN?
A ‘child’ is anyone who has not reached adulthood, the exact age of which varies between countries. However, generally, younger children are more vulnerable to harm than older children.
‘Harm’ is not a narrow concept, and can mean different things in different contexts. In a very broad sense however, it can be thought of as anything that adversely affects a child’s physical or mental health, or intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development.
More specifically, it can be considered to include:
- Sexual abuse – where a child is forced, persuaded or encouraged to take part in sexual activity, whether or not physical contact is involved (including grooming, where an individual seeks to befriend a child in order to take advantage of them for sexual purposes).
- Physical abuse – where physical harm is inflicted on a child, including injuries such as bruises, broken bones, burns or cuts.
- Emotional abuse – where a child is emotionally mistreated, which includes such things as bullying, or humiliating or scaring a child (this could include instances of trolling, flaming, and cyberbullying).
- Financial abuse – where a child is defrauded, exploited or otherwise placed under any financial pressure, including in the context of gambling.
Harm can also arise in the context of sexual relationships arising from the abuse of a position of trust, such as where an individual exploits a relationship in which they employ, care for, advise, mentor, supervise or coach a child (such a relationship can be considered harmful whether or not both parties are over the age of consent, which older children can be despite still being children).
WHERE ARE THE RISKS AREAS?
Perhaps the very first step for any esports organisation seeking to prevent harm to children is to establish which aspects of its operation create a foreseeable risk of harm to children.
Most obviously, such risks arise – online or offline – where individuals (including other children) have direct and unsupervised access to children. In an esports context, obvious examples include the increasingly common practice of coaching young players, the team environment (where the team includes any member who is not yet an adult) and any online tournaments or other platforms that feature unsupervised communication or messaging (whether spoken or written).
Risk of harm to children also of course arises in the context of any gambling operations, with regulators expending significant efforts to ensure that children are protected from harm and exploitation, including by requiring (among other things) strong age verification checks. Similarly, esports organisations may also take the view – if not in any event required by national law(s) – that children should be prevented from accessing content that is not appropriate to their age group (for example, by restricting access to playing in, or viewing, age rated games – whether online or at physically staged events).
WHAT STEPS CAN BE TAKEN TO REDUCE THE RISK OF HARM, AND TO RESPOND WHEN IT OCCURS?
There are a number of steps esports organisations can take to reduce the risks to children that might arise from their operations. The most appropriate steps in each case will depend on the specific circumstances of the organisation (including its relevant activities and the age of children involved), but those steps include (individually or as part of a wider child protection policy):
- Guidance and codes of conduct
Esports organisations can produce and publish information that clearly sets out conduct that will not be tolerated, as well as guidance as to how individuals should treat children. This information can be set out as part of wider acceptable use policies.
- Rules and regulations
Esports organisations can introduce rules and regulations governing participation/access, which enable them to prevent access to individuals who might harm children. Such rules and regulations can also set out processes in order to address individual cases, providing for appropriate procedures and sanctions (from education as to best practice in less serious cases to lifetime bans in the most serious cases).
- Clear reporting mechanisms
Esports organisations should ensure that there are clear ways in which individuals can report any suspicions they might have that any child is being harmed, or at risk of being harmed, e.g. a dedicated telephone line and email address, or online reporting system.
- Reacting to reports
Esports organisations should ensure that they have procedures in place to quickly and effectively respond to any discovery or reports of harm, including support for anyone affected, and the ability to take any immediate steps necessary to deal appropriately with anyone accused of committing an act of harm. This should include sharing information with other esports stakeholders and third parties (to the extent lawfully possible) in order to prevent further harm.
ESIC is keen to encourage best practice in relation to child protection, and therefore welcomes any observations stakeholders may have in this area. ESIC will actively monitor any developments in relation to the protection of children, and may seek to take an active role in future.
In the meantime, ESIC strongly encourages its members and esports stakeholders more widely, to review their operations to identify any areas where a risk of harm to children might arise, and then consider whether those areas are adequately addressed, and if not, what steps should be taken.