The internet is now 30 years old, making it the same age as the key formulation of children’s rights, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. In the intervening years, our understanding of the transformative effects of the internet on both society and children have developed in tandem. In this blog Sonia Livingstone outlines some of the issues raised by the internet in relation to children rights and what we may learn from children themselves on this subject. Finally, she remarks on the consultation period for the UN’s General Comment on The Rights of the Child in the Digital Environment, inviting readers to join this debate.
The key human rights framework for children is the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It has been visionary, authoritative, comprehensive and influential. Yet it was written in 1989, when the internet was just beginning and its significance much underestimated. So is the Convention fit for the digital age? I have previously argued that the convention needs updating. However, this was not entirely serious, as the Convention has been carefully phrased to apply broadly across time and place, while allowing for local application. But undoubtedly there are growing uncertainties over how to interpret and implement it in relation to the digital environment.
A mounting set of threats to children’s safety and wellbeing is leading to a widespread clamour that something must be done – think of, among many other instances; the web streaming of child sexual abuse and exploitation, the massive data breaches of children’s personal data via the Internet of Toys, or the explosion in ‘fake news’ along with multifarious covert forms of persuasion – as with the case of self-harm messaging on Instagram.
Something indeed must be done. However, it’s important that this doesn’t undermine the many positives of internet access for children too – think of the educational possibilities, as children gain access to many kinds of information, along with the civic and political possibilities for young citizens, not to mention the sheer pleasure, sociability and fun of many online activities.
A holistic, balanced approach is greatly needed, one that respects these wider benefits and doesn’t just try to manage ad hoc problems as they arise. This should begin by listening to children, as is their right under article 12 of the Convention. Children have plenty to say about the upsides and downsides of the internet, and about what should be done. They call for internet access, digital literacy and greater support, recognising the huge breadth of ways in which the digital world is reconfiguring their wellbeing and life changes:
“If someone is sick in the family, we can use the internet to match symptoms to the sickness and determine its severity.”
Girl, 18 years old from Bhutan
“It is through the internet that many young people join terrorist groups, because the internet helps but on the other hand it destroys.”
Boy, 15 years old from Central African Republic
“Teachers should teach classes that help us use digital technology appropriately.”
Girl, 17 years old from Japan
These are just a small selection of the wealth of views collected by Amanda Third and her colleagues for UNICEF in 2017. But who’s listening? Five years ago the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child held what’s called a Day of General Discussion on digital media and children’s rights. It concluded that:
“States should adopt a national coordinating framework with a clear mandate and sufficient authority to coordinate all activities related to children’s rights and digital media and ICTs at cross-sectoral, national, regional and local levels and facilitate international cooperation.”
In the UK we are about to get new regulation, it seems. But what of the global situation? Most children live in the global South, and despite huge problems of poverty and inequality, many of them are getting online in one way or another. Our Global Kids Online project shows that this brings both opportunities to benefit and risks of harm, with children often the ‘canary in the coal mine’ – experiencing life in the digital age before parents, teachers or governments have caught up. UNICEF’s annual State of the World’s Children report in 2017 called on all stakeholders to better realise children’s rights in a digital world. As part of its Strategy on the Rights of the Child, in 2018 the Council of Europe adopted a Recommendation for member states on Guidelines to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of the child in the digital environment. This too is an inspiring document, and one I was proud to contribute to as independent expert consultant.
The UN, however, has universal reach. It also has a particular mechanism at its disposal – the General Comment. As the Child Rights International Network explains, these… provide interpretation and analysis of specific articles of the CRC or deal with thematic issues related to the rights of the child. General Comments constitute an authoritative interpretation as to what is expected of States parties as they implement the obligations contained in the CRC.
In 2017 we wrote the case for a General Comment for the Office of the Children’s Commissioner. The exciting news is that in 2018, the Committee on the Rights of the Child decided to develop a new General Comment on the Rights of the Child in the Digital Environment. This will take a year or more to develop, including global consultations with experts and, importantly, with children also.
The first consultation which closed in May – invited evidence, insights and priorities regarding the role of the digital environment, for better or for worse, in relation to children’s access to information and freedom of expression and thought; right to education and digital literacy; freedom of assembly; right to culture, leisure and play; protection of privacy, identity and data processing; protection from violence, sexual exploitation and other harm; family environment, parenting and alternative care; health and wellbeing.
None of this will be straightforward. The task ahead is to produce a succinct and informative document for States regarding their obligations to realise children’s rights. This will include, significantly, the obligation of the State to ensure that business meets its responsibilities to children’s rights, including by design. As you may imagine, there are plenty of knotty challenges to be faced. As the Committee has put it, key questions include:
Supporting the Committee is our team led by Baroness Beeban Kidron and 5Rights, including me, Amanda Third of the Western Sydney University, Gerison Lansdown, and Jutta Croll of Stiftung Digitale Chancen.
A version of this article originally appeared on the LSE Impact blog.
Sonia Livingstone OBE is Professor of Social Psychology in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE. Taking a comparative, critical and contextual approach, her research examines how the changing conditions of mediation are reshaping everyday practices and possibilities for action. She has published twenty books on media audiences, media literacy and media regulation, with a particular focus on the opportunities and risks of digital media use in the everyday lives of children and young people.
Sonia has advised the UK government, European Commission, European Parliament, Council of Europe and other national and international organisations on children’s rights, risks and safety in the digital age. She was awarded the title of Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2014 'for services to children and child internet safety.'
- Filter results by content type
In an effort to provide insights and guidance on how businesses protect – or fall short in protecting – children’s rights in South Africa, this report draws on one of Global Child Forum’s essential research products ‘The corporate sector and children’s rights benchmark’. More specifically, insights are provided across three areas where the corporate sector impacts children’s rights: The Workplace, The Marketplace, The Community and the Environment. In 2015, Global Child Forum, in partnership with Boston Consulting Group, published a benchmark study of the 271 largest companies in the region. This report is a follow-up to that study. An updated benchmark analysis has been conducted on 20 of the region’s largest companies.
To mark our 10-year anniversary, and to acknowledge the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, we asked young people and adult stakeholders what they see as the most critical issues for business to consider in the coming decade. To answer this question, we commissioned a global survey – scanning opinions from Stockholm to Sao Paolo – to listen and learn so that we can better guide companies along their journey to create a better world for children. So what are the top 10 children’s rights and business issues? Read on to find out!
In this video Alinde Melin, Global Children's Rights Leader at Inter IKEA Group, shares what her recommendations are for companies that would like to start involving young people in their business. This video is part of a series of interviews with leading experts in the field. They were asked about the importance of child participation and business.
The Children’s Rights and Business Atlas helps businesses identify potential impacts on the lives of children, especially where it is most needed, and guides the integration of children’s rights into company due diligence practices and procedures.
Businesses, investors and organisations alike need to understand how their actions impact children’s rights across the globe. The Children’s Rights and Business Atlas, developed with UNICEF, is the first comprehensive resource to guide companies in assessing risks to children within industry sectors and regions of operation.
The Marketplace Index measures marketing to children, and safe products and services for children including online safety. Businesses, investors and organisations alike need to understand how their actions impact children’s rights across the globe. The Children’s Rights and Business Atlas, developed together with UNICEF, is the first comprehensive resource to guide companies in assessing risks to children within industry sectors and regions of operation. Through indices, global interactive maps and country scorecards, the Atlas provides a quantitative assessment on the degree to which children’s rights are protected within 195 countries and across 5 industry sectors.
Select a region, industry or theme below to learn more about our work there.