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I saw first-hand how the tech giants seduced the EU – and undermined democracy | Georg Riekeles

Voice Of EU



The tide is seemingly turning against Meta, Google and other tech giants. Groundbreaking new European Union legislation is imminent, aimed at forcing the large digital platforms to do more to keep users safe and cutting down market abuses, data capture and surveillance infrastructure.

As the Digital Services Act package was being finalised, the very public crossing of swords between Elon Musk and the European Commission over Twitter captured headlines. Yet the Musk spectacle was a sideshow.

Much more urgently in need of scrutiny is big tech’s hidden lobbying against the DSA. It is unlikely that Brussels has previously seen campaigns on such a scale and practices so out of line with the requirements of a democratic, open society.

The DSA will be rubber-stamped by the European parliament next week. When it finally comes into force this year, it will allow Europe for the first time to neutralise some of the harms caused by social media platforms. But the compromises made in getting here also reflect the extraordinary power of tech companies to influence decision-making, and by extension to subvert our democracies.

We learned from big tobacco how outsized interests create entire ecosystems to influence and manipulate both civil society and policymakers. Based on my experience of and encounters with the big tech platforms from inside the EU over 12 years, I have formed the view that the Brussels policy community has been, and still insidiously is, in the grip of this corporate class – the biggest the world has ever seen.

European competition law was supposedly big tech’s greatest fear. But it has patently been either too weak or too ineffectively applied to rein in the Silicon Valley giants. Profit margins as high as Google’s (under its parent company Alphabet) and Meta’s, hovering at about 30% for a decade, should be prima facie evidence that they have not been facing real competition.

If an incapacity to set limits on the tech platforms were not enough, other entitlements were actually conferred on them. Along with building trillion-dollar empires on reaching into our personal data, the platforms have for more than 20 years enjoyed significant liability exemptions in both European and US law.

How did big tech gain its privileged status, regulatory permissions and such a commanding presence in Europe? Brussels has tough questions to answer. As vital battles in framing “human-centric” artificial intelligence still lie ahead, the self-examination must go deep.

Nick Clegg with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in Dublin on 17 June 2020. He defended Facebook’s decision not to take action against inflammatory posts by Donald Trump, arguing that ‘defending free expression is important’.
Nick Clegg with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in Dublin on 17 June 2020. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

I can provide only an account of where I have come across the tech platforms in Brussels policymaking, but I believe that central to this failure is the question of capture.

In 2010 I arrived at the EC as a member of Michel Barnier’s team of advisers. Barnier was commissioner for the internal market, and I was given responsibility for digital single-market issues and intellectual property rights, including copyright reform. For me, the commission was Camelot, a near-mythic force of public policy for European citizens, armed with regulatory powers to take on the unruly interests of the globalised economy. I had a lot to learn about the dark arts of lobbying the EU.

The centrepiece of EU digital single-market legislation was then, and remains, the Electronic Commerce Directive, dating from 2000. Whether by unthinking imitation of the American regulatory approach, lobbying or simply because of early-days internet enthusiasm – or likely a mix of all three – Europe had followed the US. Its rules recognised online intermediaries as “neutral” content distributors, and gave them immunity from liability for the information they hosted – in retrospect, it often seemed, no matter how toxic, indecent or illegal.

By the early 2010s, the exemptions had come to be seen by many in the EU as deeply problematic. Campaigners pleaded with us for more accountability, and against the platforms’ self-regulation. They had a duty of care, it was argued. By what logic, after all, were publishers and broadcasters liable and responsible for everything they distributed, but online platforms reaching far more people and making much more money from it, were not. So why did it take the EU more than two decades to act?

There is an inescapable feeling that we let much of this happen because these were US companies. There was in the commission, as elsewhere, a fascination with Silicon Valley. It was both revered and feared.

A dangerous laissez-faire ideology had also come to dominate Brussels’ thinking on tech regulation. People wanted to trust that tech was progress, that its leading companies were benevolent, net neutrality and democracy went hand in hand, and that the US regulatory model was the one to emulate. To question this was close to a taboo.

The platform economy had a vigorous champion in Neelie Kroes, in charge of the powerful competition portfolio between 2004 and 2009 and later the digital agenda. She was a formidable opponent of Barnier.

The full story must also include platform-friendly EU governments such as the then member Britain, which privileged strong transatlantic ties and interests. Google had direct links to the Cameron-Clegg coalition government, for instance. In Brussels, Google’s influence in London was close to a “fact on the ground”. Kroes would go on to join boards of the US tech companies Uber and Salesforce after she left the commission, and Nick Clegg is now, of course, Meta’s president for global affairs.

The liability exemptions were not the only internet economy battleground in the commission. Another involved copyright laws. Fierce lobbying came in from all sides, particularly around user-generated content. Should music in videos uploaded by YouTubers be subject to copyright payments and, crucially, should the platforms be obliged to prevent copyright violations? If Europe were not to stifle creativity, user-generated content should simply be exempt from copyright protection, the reformers and their supporters in Kroes’s entourage insisted.

When this view ran into resistance, the public debate took a darker twist. Allegations spread that free speech was threatened and even that teenagers could be hunted down in their bedrooms by rights holders or the commission. The reality was more nuanced. The platforms were making colossal advertising profits from content produced for free by users, and content upload filters had been in use for years without choking off user creativity.

I don’t remember meeting YouTube directly at the time. Its representatives were, in fact, conspicuously absent. By contrast, well-organised citizens’ and stakeholder groups came to put their views as well as canvassing members of the European parliament. At one point, I remember thinking: who are these people? It turned out that the coordinator of one of the most vocal lobbying coalitions in Brussels on digital copyright reform, representing everything from public libraries to digital rights organisations, was also the managing director of a consultancy whose clients included Google, YouTube’s owner. To me this looked like big tech “astroturfing” (where the real sponsors of a message are concealed by making it look as if it’s come from the grassroots.) Even if not, there was surely a public interest in asking if Google had influenced this coalition’s campaigning.

The tech industry had other ways of imperceptibly swaying opinion in Brussels. Invitations would arrive to visit Google’s offices, or to experience its latest innovation. The bait at the time could be Google’s self-driving car, or an offer to try out Google Glass. It was the perfect, cool, lunchtime bowl of oxygen for many in Brussels eager to keep up with the new frontiers of technology. The fun and games didn’t stop there. Conferences were held in interesting spaces, usually homing in on fascinating science or engineering stories. EU officials and politicians – from heads of cabinets and director generals to MEPs – went by the dozen. Google’s tactic was as simple as its pockets were deep: through hospitality, create a positive link, thick or thin, with as many people of power as possible.

In 2016, by which time I had moved to the EU’s Brexit negotiation taskforce, the commission finally proposed the directive on copyright in the digital single market. In early 2019, as the legislation was entering the final stages of debate, huge street protests took place across Europe, millions signed petitions, and MEPs were bombarded by emails warning against agreeing to anything that would “chill” online expression.

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki speaking in front of company publicity at the Los Angeles office in 2017.
YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki at the Los Angeles office in 2017. Photograph: Reed Saxon/AP

Debate on deep societal issues is welcome, but it is important to look behind the uproar for the long shadow of corporate interests. Big tech had helped to rally protesters to the barricades. YouTube’s chief executive, Susan Wojcicki, had told the platform’s creators across the world that the legislation posed “a threat to both your livelihood and your ability to share your voice with the world … threatening hundreds of thousands of jobs”.

In the end, the commission prevailed. The copyright directive took effect across Europe a year ago. I leave it to others to judge on the substantiation of Google’s dramatic warning that it would “change the web as we know it”.

Fast forward to now, and history, it seems, is repeating itself. The Digital Services Act marks the end of the platforms’ vast liability exemptions and their seeming impunity. It will impose more transparency on the platforms’ content moderation and set rules on so-called dark patterns, design features that can trick users into doing things they didn’t mean to.

But it’s still only a first pass at how to deal with the many complex uses of artificial intelligence and the platforms’ recommender systems that determine not only our commercial choices but the information we get and how we see the world.

Vast sums are at stake. Fourth-quarter revenues in 2021 at Google’s parent, Alphabet, jumped by more than 30%, thanks – acccording to the FT – to AI “enhancements that had improved the underlying effectiveness of the company’s ads”.

No wonder that one of the biggest battles around the new EU legislation related to the behavioural or tracking advertising that underpins the tech platforms’ business success: the so-called surveillance capitalism model.

Concerned about the democratic threat posed by revenue-driven data collection and micro-targeted ads, a group of MEPs organised a Tracking-Free Ads Coalition, arguing for much stricter curbs than those the commission had originally proposed.

The counter-mobilisation was massive, and it came from an unexpected quarter: Brussels had never seen so many small and medium-sized business and startup organisations turn up to lobby. SMEs, it was claimed, would suffer most from a ban on tracking ads.

Let’s have a closer look at some of the groups that lobbied hardest. Allied for Start-Ups was a prominent voice against restrictions on targeted ads. Its website and LinkedIn profile suggest that it is run out of California. On its 14-member strong business council sit Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Pinterest and Google.

SME Connect, meanwhile, was established in 2017 and has 22 MEPs active on its board. Yet financially, it is backed by what it calls its Friends of SMEs who “support SMEs in their interest to cut red tape and create a more business-friendly environment with fair competition”. So who are they? The friends include the magnanimous Amazon, Meta, Uber and Google.

The research group Corporate Europe Observatory has identified SME Connect and Allied for Start-Ups among a number of associations “ostensibly representing the interests of startups and small and medium-sized enterprises, but that are funded by big tech and whose lobbying is in line with the interests of large digital platforms”.

Demonstration against the planned EU copyright reform, Berlin, 23 March 2019.
A demonstration against the planned EU copyright reform in Berlin in Mar 2019. Photograph: Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters

SME Connect’s flagship activity is the Coalition for Digital Ads of SMEs, a campaign that argues that “new EU rules restricting targeted ad technology would put European small businesses at risk”. I had a further look at some of the coalition’s partners. Danish Entrepreneurs is listed as Dansk Iværksætter Forening (DIF). Nothing to see here: DIF is a well-established entrepreneur association founded in 1985. Yet wait, who represents DIF in the coalition? It’s DIF’s chairperson – who, it turns out, runs a tech consultancy “in proud partnership with Google”.

Other partners include Infobalt, a Lithuanian “digitech sector association” counting Google among its members; IAB Europe, the European-level association for digital marketing that includes Meta and Google as members; and Sapie, the Google-backed “Slovak alliance for innovation economy”.

I have no reason to doubt that these actors believe in the messages they carry, but the more you look, the more Google and affiliated interests you find in the SMEcampaign against the EU regulation of targeted online advertising.

These links are surely a matter of public interest, yet they are often not publicised.

I left the commission in the spring of 2021 for a job at a Brussels thinktank. But the tentacles of platform power are never far away. I was contacted by consultancies and law firms asking whether, in addition to my work with the thinktank, I would be interested in a role as a “senior adviser” for a few major clients.

“We have put together a group of media publishers who are fighting the new rules on ancillary copyright,” one pitch went. “It’s on behalf of Google, and we help them find their way around Brussels.” I politely declined the opportunity.

Big tech now dominates the list of Brussels’ biggest corporate lobbying spenders, effortlessly outspending and eclipsing any other digital technologies public interest group. This lobbying is only the tip of the iceberg, given how much effort goes into influencing public opinion and policymakers in both Brussels and the EU member states through advertising, and funding third parties and seemingly independent interest groups.

The coveted world of Brussels thinktanks, where the impact of proposed policy is supposed to be analysed objectively, is not immune from the tech sector’s web of influence.

There are some where it is difficult not to see the influence of the Californian giants. Outfits such as the Center for Data Innovation, which has headquarters in Washington DC, appear to be microstructures implanted directly from the US to influence EU public policy around data and technology. This organisation is part of a network that lists Meta, Amazon, Alphabet and Airbnb among its larger corporate supporters.

In private, some thinktankers will admit they are used more as lobbyists than independent thinkers. Even if they believe what they write, it is those whose views align with big tech that will get research funding, hence skewing the balance of opinions in the public sphere.

And ultimately, this lack of independent, critical analysis is also part of what has allowed big tech to play its hand unchallenged in Brussels for nearly two decades.

In the end, Google and Meta, I contend, won their fight in Brussels over profiling and tracking ads. The European parliament pushed through a prohibition on profiling of minors and the use of sensitive data such as political and sexual orientation. But in the commission, the vice-president Margrethe Vestager came down against a full ban on tracking ads. The core of big tech’s surveillance-based business model remains intact.

The full scale and intricacy ofbig tech lobbying efforts, funding mechanisms, affiliations and influence routes can only be guessed at. But tech companies appear, judging by the evidence, to have succeeded in undermining EU efforts to address legitimate societal concerns, and the subversion has been both sophisticated and largely opaque.

My own experience of their lobbying chimes well with a Google memo leaked in November 2020 containing a list of tactics it would use to undermine the commission’s proposals, and the internal market commissioner Thierry Breton in particular. It’s a playbook reminiscent of the methods of big tobacco.

Tech regulation today is understood mostly in terms of a strict competition regime, rules to keep privacy-invading platforms in check and deal with algorithms. But the Digital Services Act shows that regulation needs also to be a struggle against the tech sector’s capacity to influence public institutions, civil society and policy discourse, often in opaque ways.

Europe needs therefore to build an effective “tech control” ecosystem. I see five conditions for judging success. Big tech cannot be a partner or stakeholder at the centre of efforts to control it. Six decades of tobacco control efforts taught us that industry interference is the most significant barrier to effective regulation.

Strong, independent regulatory powers must be at the heart of control. The EU must build independent capacities, such as an agency for AI that can conduct risk assessments across all social harms, prevent manipulative design techniques and algorithms and offer users a means of redress.

Transparency and democracy in and around EU institutions are critical. The European parliament still has loopholes in the transparency of its practices and the EU transparency register should be given investigative powers to uncover circumvention and breaches of its code of conduct.

Tech industry interference strategies need to be systematically monitored and countered. The pushback against big tobacco was a decades-long battle involving the WHO, public research programmes, international peer-reviewed journals and global watchdogs (for instance, STOP, Tobacco Control and Tobacco Tactics).

An effective “tech control” ecosystem is also about making sure alternative voices are not captured. After the 2008 financial crisis, MEPs assisted with the setting up of Finance Watch, an NGO tasked with conducting independent research and advocacy on financial regulation in the broader interest of society beyond banks.

Now, Europe needs a Tech Watch. In an environment that is easily bought by those with the most money, independent research on tech regulation must be upheld. The public and policymakers need to be able to trust that there are sources of policy input that do not have the long shadow of Google and Meta hanging over them. The great contest within our societies is between the power of money and the power of people.

  • Georg Riekeles is associate director at the European Policy Centre. These views are personal and do not represent those of former or current employers

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 300 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at

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Lego releases Atari Video Computer System set • The Register

Voice Of EU



Lego has followed up its Nintendo Entertainment System retro throwback with one celebrating the Atari Video Computer System (VCS).

The set, retailing at a heart-stopping $239.99 (£209.99 in the UK), is a non-functional replica of the iconic game console, although only the model with four switches rather than the six of others in the range. Not that those switches do an awful lot in Lego form.

In fact, compared to the cheaper Nintendo Entertainment System set (with all its twiddly technic bits and separate television), we’d have to describe the VCS set as a bit of a disappointment if it weren’t for the nostalgia factor.

The plastic bricks also fail to include a mock cartridge of the best game on the VCS, Combat. Asteroids, Centipede, and Adventure simply don’t cut it in comparison even with the reproduction of the hopelessly optimistic cover art so beloved by ’80s and ’90s designers and some neat Lego vignettes themed after the games.

Lego also opted to skip E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, described as the worst game ever. We can imagine an appropriate model for that example and the impact it had on the industry of the time.

Still, the 2,500-plus pieces will make for a fun build and includes a replica of the classic Atari joystick and a mini-fig scale 1980s room which pops up when the front is slid forward.

The price does seem high for what is effectively a plastic throwback to simpler times. Then again, other attempts to recreate that retro magic could cost you a lot more and potentially leave you without even a pile of plastic bricks to play with.

Or one could always take the plastic assembly and stick something like a Raspberry Pi (preloaded with an emulator) into it. Similar things were done with Lego’s Nintendo Entertainment System where the Technic guts of the television were removed and replaced with a Pi and an LCD screen to create something on which one can play games (ROM ownership notwithstanding).

Youtube Video

It is a shame that Lego did not see fit to include a television with the Atari VCS in the way it did with the NES, and also limited interaction to a pop-up 1980s room and some switches. However, the design looks good and is a reminder of an age when sticking something that looked like wood on the front of the console and squeezing games into kilobytes rather than gigabytes was state of the art.

Otherwise there are many examples of the VCS that can be had on various auction sites for considerably less than Lego’s asking price that are a good deal more interactive. ®

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4 reasons hybrid working looks set to stay for young professionals

Voice Of EU



From priorities to practicalities, Dr Amanda Jones of King’s College London explains why hybrid working may be here to stay and outlines the pitfalls that younger employees will need to avoid.

Click here to visit The Conversation.

A version of this article was originally published by The Conversation (CC BY-ND 4.0)

We’re in the middle of a remote working revolution. In the UK, though remote working was slowly growing before the pandemic, in 2020 the number of people working from home doubled.

While this rapid rise can be explained by Covid lockdowns, a recent survey my colleagues and I conducted with 2,000 London workers found that six in 10 employees still regularly work from home despite restrictions no longer being in place. And most don’t want that to change.

Findings from other parts of the world similarly point to a substantial increase in the number of work days being undertaken from home.

For young professionals, the shift has been particularly significant. Before the pandemic, employees in their 20s were by far the least likely to work from home.

In 2022, 64pc of 16 to 24-year-olds we surveyed reported working at home for at least part of the week. This figure is in line with 25 to 49-year-olds (65pc) and in fact higher than for people over 50 (48pc).

Other research also shows that young professionals now engage in hybrid working – dividing their time between their home and their workplace – and may prefer this model to being in the office full time.

US and European data shows that around four in 10 jobs can be conducted from home. But this figure may be higher if we consider that some jobs could be at least partly done from home. In particular, jobs in finance and insurance, information and communication and education are among the most conducive to being performed remotely.

Technologies which support remote working, such as Zoom and Slack, have been available for a number of years. While the pandemic has served as a catalyst for the rise in remote working among younger employees, I would argue that other factors have also contributed to this shift – some of which were already evident before the pandemic.

Importantly, each of these factors suggest this change to the way young professionals work is here to stay.

1. Priorities

Evidence suggests that even before the pandemic, young people were becoming more focused on their own goals, wanted greater flexibility and control, and sought a better work-life balance compared with previous generations. The reasons for this may be related to the changing nature of organisations and careers, which I’ll discuss later.

Our own and other research indicates that remote working, especially working from home (as opposed to, say, at client sites), can boost feelings of flexibility and control and enhance work-life balance. So working remotely could help younger people achieve these goals in a way that traditional working arrangements can’t.

In fact, research indicates that many young people would now rather switch jobs than compromise on the flexibility they gain from hybrid working. So for employers, supporting hybrid working may be necessary to attract and retain the best employees.

2. Practicalities

Across all age groups, participants in our research picked avoiding the commute as the biggest benefit of working remotely. While this has long been a recognised advantage of remote working, it’s important to note that we surveyed London workers – and the commute may be less of an issue for people in other places.

Aside from the time and hassle involved in commuting, travelling to work every day can be expensive. The cost of working in the office goes up if you also factor in lunches, coffees and after-work social activities.

This may be difficult for younger people – who are contending with the rising costs of living, often on lower salaries – to manage. Working remotely can help reduce spending, making it an attractive option – and even a potential lifeline – for younger employees.

3. Career trajectories

Studies show that a move towards less hierarchical, more efficient and flexible organisations results in a “new deal” of employment. Employers no longer guarantee job security and progression for employees, but gain their commitment by providing opportunities – including training programmes – that enhance their employability.

The onus then moves to employees to manage their own career progression, which remote working may help them with. For example, we know working from home can reduce distractions and improve productivity.

Taken with the commuting time saved, young professionals may have more time to dedicate to development opportunities, such as studying for additional qualifications. This could increase their attractiveness in the job market.

Indeed, young professionals seem to be the most likely to switch jobs. If they don’t expect to remain with an organisation long term, they may be less motivated to build strong relationships with colleagues and managers, and unwilling to put their own goals aside for those of the organisation.

4. Managers’ behaviour

Research shows many more managers now work remotely compared with before the pandemic. This change has two important effects.

First, managers who work remotely are likely to find it harder to stop juniors from doing the same. Managers’ ability to monitor and develop their junior staff in person, a common reason for prohibiting remote work in the past, is also reduced if managers are away from the office themselves.

Second, as more managers work remotely, younger employees may feel more confident that doing so won’t prevent them achieving success. Managers serve as role models to junior employees and evidence shows that younger professionals seek success by copying role models’ behaviour.

Avoiding the pitfalls of hybrid working

Despite the positives, younger employees, with comparatively limited experience and networks, may face disproportionately negative outcomes from remote working in terms of recognition, development and networking opportunities.

So if you’re a young professional working remotely, how can you avoid the pitfalls of hybrid working?

Setting your own goals can keep motivation and performance high. Meanwhile, proactively communicating your challenges and achievements to senior and peer-level colleagues can ensure that you receive guidance and recognition.

It’s a good idea to plan some of your time in the office to coordinate with team members or managers. At the same time, it’s useful to try to schedule office visits on different days of the week. This can help maintain key relationships but also help build networks through bumping into colleagues you don’t necessarily work as closely with.

Finally, upping attendance at external conferences and events could increase your value to the organisation through encouraging innovation and fresh ideas, while keeping you aware of external employment opportunities.

The Conversation

By Dr Amanda Jones

Dr Amanda Jones is a lecturer in organisational behaviour and human resource management at King’s College London.

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Kids’ tech: the best children’s gadgets for summer holidays | Gadgets

Voice Of EU



With the long school summer holiday well under way, you may need a bit of help keeping the kids entertained. From walkie-talkies and cameras to tablets, robot toys and fitness trackers, here are some of the best kid-aimed tech to keep the little (and not-so-little) ones occupied.

Robot toys

Sphero Mini – about £50

Sphero Mini robotic ball.
Sphero Mini robotic ball. Photograph: Bryan Rowe/Sphero

Lots of tech toys are fads but my longtime favourite has stood the test of time as a modern update to remote control fun. Sphero is a ball you control using a smartphone or tablet, and has hidden depths, with games and educational elements also available.

The mini Sphero ball is a lot of fun to drive around and small enough that overexuberant indoor excursions won’t result in broken furniture and scuffed-up paintwork. The Sphero Play app has games, while the Sphero Edu app is great at fostering creative learning.

Kids or big kids can learn to program, follow examples, get the robot to do all sorts of things, or go deeper and write some code for it in JavaScript. Higher-end versions such as the £190 BOLT take the educational elements to the next level, too.


Amazon Fire 7 Kids – about £110

Amazon Fire 7 Kids edition tablet.
Amazon Fire 7 Kids edition tablet. Photograph: Amazon

If you would rather not lend your precious breakable phone or iPad to your little ones, Amazon’s practically indestructible Kids edition tablets could be just the ticket.

The cheapest and smallest Fire 7 has just been updated and is available in a range of bright-coloured cases with a pop-out stand. If your offspring do manage to break it, Amazon will replace it for free under its two-year “worry-free” guarantee.

It does all the standard tablet things such as movies, apps, games, a web browser if you want it, and parental controls to lock it, set time limits and age filters. There’s even an option restricting access to curated child-safe sites and videos but it doesn’t have access to the Google Play store, only Amazon’s app store.

The Kids edition comes with a one-year subscription to Amazon Kids+ (£3 to £7 a month afterwards), which is a curated collection of child-friendly text and audio books, movies, TV shows and educational apps.

The larger £140 Fire HD 8 and £200 Fire HD 10 are available in Kids versions, too, if you want something bigger, or Amazon’s new Kids Pro tablets start at £100 with additional features aimed at school-age children.

Alternatives include LeapFrog’s various educational tablets, which are fine for younger children, or hand-me-down or refurbished iPads (from £150) in robust cases, which can be locked down with some parental controls.


VTech Kidizoom Duo 5.0 – about £39

VTech Kidizoom Duo 5.0 kids’ camera in pink.
VTech Kidizoom Duo 5.0 kids’ camera in pink. Photograph: VTech

Before the advent of smartphones, standalone cameras were the way we visually documented our lives, and they still can be a bit of creative fun and inspiration for kids.

The VTech Kidizoom Duo 5.0 is a “my first digital camera” of sorts made of rugged plastic and simple in operation, which VTech reckons is suitable for three- to nine-year-olds. It captures 5MP photos of reasonable quality and can shoot from the back for selfies, too, all viewable on a 2.4in screen.

The optical viewfinder helps them line up the shot, which they can transform with fun filters and effects. It even shoots video, too. The kid-centric nature of it might turn off older children but every award-winning photographer has to start somewhere before the smartphone takes over.

It needs an SD card for storage and takes four AA batteries at a time, and chews through them fast, so buy some rechargeables to help save money and the planet.

For older children, rugged and waterproof action cams could be the way to go, shooting video and photos. Budget no-brand cams cost from about £80 but secondhand or refurbished models from the big boys such as GoPro and DJI go for about £100 and on eBay and elsewhere.

Fitness trackers

Garmin Vivofit Jr 3 – from about £55

Garmin Vivofit Jr 3 Star Wars edition.
Garmin Vivofit Jr 3 Star Wars edition. Photograph: Garmin

Your child may not need any encouragement to tear about the place but if you are after a gadget to “gamify” and reward their activity – as well as giving them a smartwatch-esque gadget to play with – the Garmin Vivofit Jr 3 could be a winner for ages four and up.

Its watch-like form comes in various themes and designs, including with various Star Wars, Marvel and Disney characters, with custom watchfaces to choose from. The user-replaceable coin-cell battery lasts a year, so you don’t have to worry about charging it. Water-resistance to 50 metres means swimming should be no problem either.

It tracks steps, activity and sleep with motivational messaging. It has mini games to play once your child has hit their goals, and can all be managed from a parent’s phone or tablet, so you can keep an eye on their data. Parents can even set goals, competitions with their own activity levels, chore reminders and tasks that can earn virtual coins for them to trade for rewards with you.

It is button-operated rather than touchscreen, and the backlight doesn’t stay on long to preserve the battery.

If you are a user of Google’s Fitbit trackers yourself, then the firm’s Ace 3 (£50) means you can compete on activity, but it needs charging every seven or so days. Other cheaper adult-focused fitness trackers such as the Xiaomi Mi Smart Band 6 (about £29) may be better for older children.


Motorola T42 Talkabout – about £35 for three

Motorola Talkabout T42 two-way radios.
Motorola Talkabout T42 two-way radios. Photograph: Motorola Solutions

Walkie-talkies are a great replacement for phones, allowing kids and big kids to keep in touch without fear of fees or smashed screens.

There are plenty of child-centric options available with various character themes but basic units usually work better. Motorola’s T42 Talkabout comes in various colours and multipacks.

They are simple to set up, with a pairing button and multiple channel selection to find a clear one. Once going, just push to talk, even over long distances. Their quoted 4km range might be a bit ambitious but they should be good for at least 500 metres in urban environments, or much further in the open air.

They take three AAA batteries each, which last about 18 hours of talking or roughly three to four days in active use, so you might need a small army of rechargeable batteries.

They have a belt clip and loop for hooking to a carabiner (metal loop) or similar, and are fairly rugged, too, so should survive being launched across a room or two.

Nestling’s camouflage walkie-talkies (about £26) are also a popular choice but there are lots of choices under £30 available on the high street.

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