Briefing: Children’s rights in the digital age
No group has been more affected than children by the communications revolution of the internet age. In affluent countries, online communication is now embedded in children’s lives from their earliest years; in the UK, for example children aged 5–15 are spending two hours online each day. Many poorer countries, particularly the larger emerging economies, are catching up.
For better or worse, the internet will soon be inseparable from the personal development and social lives of the large majority of children worldwide. This brings multiple benefits: access to information, opportunities for self-expression, wider horizons of awareness, and a radically extended scope for social interaction. It also exposes children to much-publicised, new risks, including exploitation and abuse by adult users, cyber-bullying by peers, and over-use.
Faced with these rapid advances, policymaking has been reactive and fragmented. The policy agenda is typically set without consulting children or assessing its impact on them, and without regard to children’s legal rights. In particular, policy intended to protect children from online abuse and over-use, while welcome in principle, has often cut children off from the benefits of the digital age, to which they have an equal right alongside adults.
This briefing brings a children’s rights perspective to these issues, concluding that the duty to safeguard children and their right of access to the internet are not in opposition; there is no need to cut children off from their world to protect them from it. By combining digital literacy education with the principles of informed consent, a rights-based approach can integrate children’s right to be protected with their right to use the internet freely.
The implications of the digital age for children’s rights, particularly those set out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), have yet to be worked out in detail. Nonetheless, it is clear that the internet revolution engages all Convention rights. This briefing focuses on four groups of rights:
The right to privacy and the right to be forgotten;
The right of access to information and the right to education;
The right to be safeguarded from abuse; and
The right to freedom of expression and the right to be heard.
Education and access to information
The greatest inequity of the digital age remains that children from poorer families in developing countries are unlikely to have any access to the internet at all. These children have the most to gain from internet access, and also the most to lose from remaining cut off from it.
Elsewhere, the growth of the internet has been matched with state censorship. At its most sweeping, censorship has included the wholesale blocking of information resources such as Wikipedia and platforms for self-expression such as Twitter. In some countries, safeguarding concerns have been used spuriously to block access to information about sexuality and gender as ‘homosexual propaganda’, which has forced support services for LGBTQ children to close or go underground. Even when safeguarding concerns provide genuine grounds to restrict children’s access to extreme violence, child abuse images, or proscribed organisations, restrictions are typically applied to excess, screening out age-appropriate information about sex, sexuality, illicit drug use, and political and social issues. In addition, corporate marketing, which is often presented as non-commercial information can profoundly skew the content that children access and digest.
States have a legal duty to ensure that children have an education, and can access information widely and equitably in support of their development and well-being. Children’s right to free expression also requires that they be able to seek out information and ideas of all kinds. The implication is that authorities should presume in favour of children’s access to the internet and that restrictions should only be imposed by law when necessary to ensure respect for the rights of others, for the protection of national security, public order or public health. Children also have a right to be protected from economic exploitation; this has far-reaching implications for online marketing, which in many countries remains largely unregulated.
From principle to practice
Internet provision. Overseas aid should be used to support children living in economically deprived regions to access the internet on an equal basis with those from more affluent backgrounds. One proposed solution has been to offer a premium paid-for fast internet in affluent locations, which could subsidise a slower, free service elsewhere. This is not a rights-based approach and would further widen the socioeconomic divide.
Restrictions. Except where limiting access to content is unambiguously required by law, and that law meets the children’s rights standards set out above, educating children in digital literacy is a preferable means of safeguarding them from harm. State and corporate agendas – such as ideological views about the legitimacy of LGBTQ information or aggressive corporate marketing – should not be allowed to interfere with children’s legal right of access.
Children are especially vulnerable to exploitation of their personal information by both commercial and state agencies, whose data-harvesting practices remain largely unregulated in most parts of the world. Children are less likely than adults to be aware that they have a legal right to privacy, that their online activity is automatically recorded, and that they are targets for corporations collecting their personal data for commercial gain.
In addition, children’s physical whereabouts and online activity are increasingly monitored by others (such as parents, schools, and the state). Monitoring technology ranges from apps for parents that report their child’s whereabouts to the screening of schools for potential future terrorists using IT systems that collect information about children’s activities. Monitoring is by nature intrusive; it is not normally subject to the consent of children, and they are often not told about it. It can also be counter-productive. When children are aware that they are being watched, they are likely to adapt their behaviour and self-censor their communications, and their trust in others – parents, their school, the state – may be damaged.
The right to privacy recognises children’s sovereignty over their personal information. The same right implies a corresponding right to ‘be forgotten’ – to have data held about oneself erased – which is now recognised explicitly in the European Union. Asking children for their consent to collect their information shows the greatest respect for children’s right to privacy. Consent must be free and informed and a child must be able to withdraw at any time. If a child does not have the capacity to consent, then their consent can never justify the collection of their information.
From principle to practice
Data collection. No personal data should be collected from children without their informed consent, which should be based on a clear, accessible and unambiguous statement of how it is to be treated; children should be given the option to withdraw consent at any time. Children who have yet to develop the capacity to grant such consent should not be asked to provide any personal data online. In all cases, the data collected should be the minimum necessary to provide the online service in question.
Data storage and sharing. Children’s personal data should never be shared with third parties except where this is absolutely necessary to provide an online service or is required by law, and it should never be traded for profit. When sharing of data is genuinely necessary, children should always be told before they are invited to provide it, and all shared data should be erased once its purpose has come to an end.
Monitoring. Except where monitoring of children’s activity – online and elsewhere – is required by law, it should not take place without: a) their informed consent; or b) where children do not yet have the capacity to grant such consent, the consent of their parents. In all cases, children should not be monitored without their knowledge.
Freedom from exploitation and abuse
Certain characteristics of the digital environment magnify the risk that children will be exploited or abused by other users. In particular, online abusers can easily operate anonymously and bypass gatekeepers such as parents or teachers. When children are bullied online, such as through ‘revenge porn’, their humiliation can be very public.
Online grooming – deceiving a child for sexual purposes – is on the rise, although its extent remains unknown. The sexual abuse that follows may be online, such as by ‘sexting’ – sending or eliciting explicit sexual images – or offline, if the victim is lured into a meeting.
Cyber-bullying, which takes several forms is becoming more common and can have a profound impact on mental health, well-being, and educational attainment. In the United States, for example, most children believe it is a serious problem, and two in five have experienced it. When children go online they are more likely to bully others, and to be bullied, than when they are offline.
Although the risk of abuse online is clearly serious, media coverage habitually fails to recognise the capacity of most children (and their parents) to protect themselves. In the UK, for example, nine in ten children have talked with their parents about staying safe online, and say that they would tell a parent or teacher if they encountered bullying or grooming.
Children have a legal right in international and most domestic law to be safeguarded from abuse, including sexual abuse. The legal onus is on state authorities to prevent abusers from contacting children and so make the internet a safer place, rather than to prevent children from accessing it.
From principle to practice
Guidance from the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the United Kingdom discourages parents from snooping on their children, which can leave children feeling untrusted and increase the risk of self-harm. The best defence against online grooming and bullying is informed and engaged parents who discuss the internet with their children from an early stage and can recognise the warning signs (such as emotional withdrawal), so that children feel able to report and discuss anything that has made them uncomfortable.
Freedom of expression
The internet has enabled children to become active politically and to mobilise for social and ecological causes, projecting their voices into the world with unprecedented reach. This has exposed children to the same repression of free expression that affects adults. In China, for example, it is unlawful to use the internet to spread information critical of the government. In the United States, a school punished a group of students for posting sexualised content, which was lawfully uploaded off-campus from their own devices.
The growing use of surveillance – from the monitoring habits of parents and schools to the mass harvesting of personal data by state agencies as revealed by Edward Snowden and others – is also playing a role in ‘chilling’ free expression. Under the United Kingdom’s Prevent programme, children, in practice particularly Muslims, can be referred to the authorities for exercising their curiosity about Islamist extremism or speaking out on behalf of oppressed groups. Again, many children are ingeniously preserving their freedom of action by circumventing surveillance using technologies like WhatsApp and Firechat.
Children have a right to freedom of expression, and also a right to have their views heard in all matters affecting them. As a legal principle, the right of freedom of expression takes precedence over the policy preferences of schools and other institutions; any restrictions on this fundamental freedom are not legitimate unless required by law and strictly necessary to safeguard the rights of others, national security, public order or public health.
From principle to practice
Children must not be made to feel afraid to speak their mind online, even when their views seem objectionable to others, provided that they act within the law and pose no serious risk of harm to themselves or others. It falls to the state and society at large to protect the internet as a space where children can express themselves without undue anxiety, and to safeguard their right to be heard in their own interests. Children should not attract suspicion for exercising these rights.
Prevention and remedies
States have a legal duty to safeguard children against harmful content and abuse, but to do so it is neither necessary nor effective to curtail their digital rights. The optimal safeguard is to facilitate children’s access to the internet, protect their privacy, encourage self-expression, and ensure that they can recognise potential dangers and know what to do about them.
We suggest that a strategic approach to parenting and policymaking in this sphere should rest on at least these four pillars:
A rights first approach. Maximise children’s enjoyment of all of their rights online equitably, including children who currently have little or no access to the internet.
Digital literacy. From an early stage and throughout their development, ensure continuously that children are aware of digital rights and risks, and what to do about them.
Consent. Empower children to decide for themselves how others collect and use their information by requiring their consent. (To protect younger children, it may be necessary to establish a minimum age of digital consent, as is now the case in the European Union and United States).
Access to justice. Ensure that children have avenues for formal (including legal) complaint in cases where their rights have been breached and the support to make effective use of these complaints procedures.
These four principles, if applied consistently, should greatly reduce the need to restrict digital access or monitor children’s behaviour without their permission or knowledge.