Adopting an opinion on advertising and child safety, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) said that new rules were necessary to deal with the "new reality" of the increasing number of children granted unsupervised access to television and the internet.
The EESC represents civil society and professional groups in EU member states.
"More and more often, children, including very young children, have access to a television and the internet alone and unsupervised," said Jorge Pegado Liz, the committee member responsible for the two opinions adopted by the EESC. "38% of children between the ages of nine and 12 already have an online profile, and this figure rises to 78% for 13-16 year olds. We need to monitor this new reality."
The EESC said that e-commerce businesses could not be relied on to self-regulate their online advertising. Although backing moves by the European Union to create a competitive digital single market, the Committee warned that this must not favour growth over child protection.
In particular, it said that the communication adopted by the EU in May on "A Better Internet for Children" was a "missed opportunity" for creating a coherent framework to protect children from harmful advertising online. The document failed to provide clear rules on advertising, the EESC said, and glossed over the issue of food advertising - an issue which deserves specific regulation in the Committee's view.
"The communication makes business growth a key objective, almost putting child protection in second place," Italian MEP Antonio Longo said. "Stringent rules should include the closure of these websites and the withdrawal of licenses in cases where holders breach data protection rules or promote child pornography."
Technology law expert Luke Scanlon of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that firms must take up any opportunities for consultation with which they are presented in order to avoid another cookie law disaster.
"We have recently seen a failure to engage with EU decision makers lead to unwanted and unnecessary costs in terms of the effort required to comply with the E-Privacy Directive's cookie law. With that experience in mind, every organisation with an online presence should now begin thinking about what constraints could be put in place to serve the interests of child protection, which are at the same time technically workable and not unduly burdensome from an administrative and cost perspective", Scanlon said.
Current legislation had "abandoned" any restrictions on inserting TV adverts, the EESC said, despite the fact that marketers had begun using more sophisticated product-marketing techniques in a bid to become more persuasive. In addition, advertisers were increasingly using the internet and social networks in addition to more traditional audiovisual media, which the Committee said was grounds for "more restrictive and cross-cutting measures".
Current laws only require member states to ensure that "television programmes", which the EESC said included commercial communications, should not contain content that could "seriously impair the physical, mental or moral development of minors". Programmes that could do so should be preceded with an "acoustic warning" or "visual symbol", unless they are shown at a time or with some other technical restriction which ensures that "minors in the area of transmission will not normally hear or see such broadcasts".
According to the opinion, children should be protected from advertising which contains "incitements to over-consumption, leading to debt and the consumption of food or other products which are harmful or dangerous to their physical and mental health". Advertising aimed at children involves "additional risks" depending on the age group involved, it said. More generally, "particularly violent, racist, xenophobic, erotic or pornographic content" could have "irreversible effects" on children's physical, mental, moral or civic development, it said.
It added that "special emphasis" should be placed on educating and informing children about the "proper use of information technologies" and how to interpret advertising messages; both from parents and as part of the school curriculum.
Editor's note 25/09/12: this story was changed because it previously said that the EESC was a committee of MEPs, which it isn't. We apologise for the error.