Inside the Digital Society: Children and the internet - How to implement a General Comment

I was asked recently – at a conference in Dublin – to summarise my view of ways in which advocates for children’s rights online, and of General Comment 25 on the Children’s Rights Convention, can build their leverage in the digital community, and especially in the United Nations, over the next few years. General Comment 25 is the most important international instrument concerned with ‘children’s rights in relation to the digital environment’. This is what I said.

General Comment 25 matters – in general, not just for children

General Comment 25, to me, is a most important intervention.

First, and obviously, it addresses an important deficit in terms of children’s experience of digitalisation. As its lead consultant Sonia Livingstone has noted, “For too long child rights advocates knew little about the internet while internet governance experts knew little about children’s rights.” It’s a step towards correcting that.

But I think it’s important more generally, not just for children but across the board in assessing digitalisation’s impact – for these three reasons.

  • It builds a framework for public policy around digitalisation that is based on lived experience rather than on aspiration.

  • It looks holistically at that experience, for a community/demographic group, across all aspects of their lives.

  • And it addresses the whole range of human rights rather than focusing on a narrow range of civil and political rights.

Many digital policy discussions fail on these three counts. In particular they’re focused on the digital dimension itself rather than its interaction with and influence upon the wider experience of individuals and communities. That adversely affects the quality of international discourse and the appropriateness of policy interventions to address the realities of digital development.

From principle to implementation

I’d say the Comment is a step towards correcting the deficit in digital policy concerning children, though, because a further stage is needed. That is to translate the approaches and interventions the Comment promotes into the practice of government and business.

Into an implementation framework, in short. Something that can achieve the same kind of resonance at international level in practice as the General Comment has achieved in principle. Something that fosters a holistic approach to children’s welfare, rights and engagement in national strategies.

I’ll make some points about why I think this is difficult in the international contexts that matter and some thoughts about ways in which it might be facilitated.

The complexity of children’s rights and lives

Those who work on children’s rights and lives understand the complexity and diversity of the experience of different genders, different ages and social classes, in different cultures and cultural environments. That level of nuance is largely missing from digital discussion fora in multilateral contexts including those within the UN system, and from the thinking of many major players in digital development, including development agencies, digital businesses and many (not all) governments.

I’ll give two examples of this.

The predominance of child protection

Much of the discussion on children’s rights in internet fora is concerned with child protection. And much of that discussion has boiled down to what many in the internet world see as a contest between children’s rights and adults’ freedoms.

That’s problematic for several reasons. It has considered children’s experience through a lens of adult interests. It has been highly polarised, focused on binary perspectives rather than trying to find new ways of navigating complex issues such as the relationship between privacy and expression rights. And it’s neglected children’s economic, social and cultural experience and rights. Broadening the focus to include the latter seems to me a major value of the General Comment.

Technological and human development

Second, much of the discussion in development agencies has focused on the perceived benefits of digitalisation for children, and how they might be achieved in ideal circumstances. When I led a review of digital opportunities in education for a major international development agency a few years ago, much of my time was spent fending off the belief that digital approaches necessarily improve educational experience, or make it unnecessary to tackle analogue deficiencies in education such as school attendance and teacher competence.

That belief in technology as the ‘solution’ is still widespread within global digital development. It ignores the diversity of children’s experience and of local contexts. It fails to register the power dynamics that govern children’s lives – in terms of family and gender, race and class, wealth and poverty. And it makes assumptions about resources – for connectivity, for educational investment, for teacher training, about children’s lives at home – that are often unfulfillable in real contexts.

Childhood and youth

I might add a third point here about the articulation of children’s rights and needs in international fora. They are rarely represented directly. Sometimes they are represented through agencies concerned with children’s welfare. But the digital world is very keen on youth participants who’re seen as representing future leaders as well as future users. Things move rapidly where digitalisation is concerned, however. Today’s children have a different experience of digital development than young people had five years ago. And many of the youth representatives who speak in international digital fora are the highly-educated offspring of wealthy families who have little experience of the lives of the majority of children, online or offline, in their own societies or others.

The need for a strategic approach

I think there are two more general failings that need to be addressed in international digital discussion concerning children’s rights and welfare if we’re to approach an implementation framework for the Comment.

One is the lack of an overall strategic approach to the impact, potential and risks of digitalisation where children are concerned. Issues like those I’ve mentioned are often treated in isolation from one another, and from broader issues such as access to communications – which is a product of connectivity, affordability, cultural constraints and other factors – or the impact that digitalisation has on family dynamics and personal relationships, the impact of exposure to new types of information and of entertainment, and so forth.

Few if any governments have anything approaching a holistic strategy towards the impact of digitalisation on children that cuts across their different government departments or seeks to implement a strategic framework comprehensively. Finding governments that are prepared to take that step towards holisticism would be immensely valuable.

There is an issue here of timeliness, which is common to many areas of digital policymaking. By the time policies are developed and legislation is enacted, the digital environment’s moved on. New policies can be outdated, while new opportunities and challenges are unaddressed. Successful implementation of General Comment 25 requires new ways of dealing with the pace of change in the experience of childhood.

Incorporating childhood in design

The other general failing lies in design – in the lack of consciousness of children’s rights and needs in how products and services are made, both those designed for children and those designed for all. This isn’t just an issue that concerns children’s rights. It’s also relevant to the impact of products and services on the environment, for instance.

The idea that innovation should be permissionless – that it should be unconstrained by precautionary measures, that any problems that arise can be fixed after the event – has been part of the ethos of digital development. That’s far from how things have been, at least in recent decades, at least in industrial economies, where offline goods and services for children are concerned, where ensuring children’s safety’s been prioritised.

It’s obvious that not all harms can be fixed afterwards, and the notion that they can becomes more problematic as technology accelerates. Think, for instance, of how children’s data in AI can be misused, or the potential perils of the metaverse.

Incorporating child-focused needs and risks in the design of digital products and services seems to me a central requirement for implementing General Comment 25 and an appropriate area for government and business action.

The United Nations context

So what of the United Nations context, and other international fora?

The UN Secretary-General has recently proposed to negotiate a Global Digital Compact that will set out terms of responsible digital development for the coming age. It will be one element in his planned Summit of the Future, which might be described as an attempt to reboot the United Nations and its values. It will also coincide with a comprehensive review of what has happened digitally since the World Summit on the Information Society set out its aspirations 20 years ago.

Establishing new principles for international cooperation is going to be difficult given today’s geopolitical environment. It does, though, open space for more discussion of themes such as those set out in General Comment 25, and that’s an opportunity which I think that children’s rights advocates should build on.

The inclusion of General Comment 25 in the Compact, as the articulation, by the UN system, of children’s rights and interests in digitalisation, would give it greater influence in national and international policy. The adoption of principles derived from it in the Compact’s reference to education and rights, would give them greater substance. So would recognition of the need to hear children’s voices in the development of public policy. A tone that recognises children’s experience as important, alongside that of other demographic groups, could act as a reminder to those in business and government that children’s interests matter where digital policy’s concerned.

Building support for an implementation strategy

Building a coalition of support for General Comment 25 will be crucial in facilitating its incorporation into broader public policy development, both nationally and internationally, in debates around the Compact and other digital agreements, in discussion of digital policy in general as well as policy that prioritises children. I would suggest that that requires three things.

First, coherence. The General Comment is more than just a collection of points and principles about different aspects affecting children’s lives. It represents an ethos concerning children’s rights online that sets out how they should be treated overall. That’s crucial because children’s rights compete with many other issues for policy attention.

But, second, focus. There’s insufficient space to deal with each aspect of the Comment individually in broader public policy debate. Overarching principles, backed by coordinated focus on specific issues, will be more effective.

And thirdly, therefore, it requires coordination. The engagement of other stakeholders alongside those primarily concerned with children’s rights – other civil society organisations concerned with rights, development and digitalisation; sympathetic governments from diverse regions; multilateral organisations and development agencies with relevant responsibilities; and, ideally, businesses that are concerned with digital development but also with social responsibility.

A coherent message from these diverse sources will be more powerful than ad hoc interventions. What scope is there for building a coordinating group around the Comment, not least in the consultation period that’s already underway towards the Secretary-General’s Compact?

 

Image: celebration of World Children's Day & 30 years of the Convention on the Rights of the Child by UNICEF Ethiopia via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)  

David Souter writes a fortnightly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.
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