Inside the Digital Society: Children’s rights in the digital society

All rights within the international rights regime are equal, at least in theory. And many are affected strongly by the digital society – economic, social and cultural rights as well as civil and political rights like privacy and freedom of expression. I first explored the range of rights affected by the internet for APC nine years ago.

Some rights receive a lot of prominence in digital debates (expression, privacy and access); others not enough. Debate on children’s rights online has focused most on child protection, to some extent on education, not enough on the general digital experience of children.

A new UN report attempts to redress this. What it is; then what it says; and then some thoughts around it.

The Children’s Rights Convention

The new report’s a General Comment (a GC) on the Convention on the Rights of the Child (the CRC): specifically on ‘children’s rights in relation to the digital environment.’

So let’s start with the Children’s Rights Convention. Agreed in 1989. Signed by every United Nations member state and ratified by all but one (the US, since you ask). 54 articles covering all aspects of childhood – defined as up to age 18 – in the light of all the rights in other international instruments.

Four ‘general principles’ guide the Convention:  

  • non-discrimination: all children should have equal and effective rights;

  • the best interests of the child: a primary consideration;

  • the right to life, survival and development: promoting opportunities, addressing risks;

  • and respect for the views of the child: listening to children, not just to those who think they speak for them, or those who think that they know better.

The General Comment

A General Comment’s a document that is agreed by the UN Committee that oversees the CRC, interprets it (for instance in the light of changing circumstances, such as the evolving digital society), and offers guidance to governments on how it should be implemented. The best of them – and this, I’d say, is one – are comprehensive, holistic, informed and practical. Informed,  not least, by consultation with their focal points, with children.

The CRC was written and adopted before we had a digital society. Children today, as this GC begins, say that digital technologies are ‘vital to their current lives and to their future.’  ‘The digital environment,’ it adds, ‘is constantly evolving and expanding,’ reaching further into lives and futures. A Convention that fails to address digital implications would fail to address a major part of children’s lives.

What’s special about children in the digital environment?

What’s different here from discussion about digital rights – or the impact of the digital on rights – in general? After all, the UN’s said that rights online should be the same as rights offline.  And ‘universal’ rights surely apply to all, children as well as adults? Why need we something more?

Because children don’t have the same agency – or experience – as adults. They have little or no power to control their lives, whether at home, in school or in society. Their interests, needs and concerns differ from those of adults, and are not necessarily well understood by adults. Recent revelations about harassment in schools, for instance, have come as a surprise to many parents whose own experience of school has been pre-digital.

Childhood also evolves.  As the General Comment puts it, ‘The risks and opportunities associated with children’s engagement in the digital environment change depending on their age and stage of development.’  Teenagers are different from five-year-olds.  (They’re also different from people in their early twenties, which is why the conjunction of ‘children and youth’ in public policy is inappropriate.)

All this is reflected in the general principles of the Convention. Governments have responsibilities derived from these to assess the impact on children of the internet, of data gathering and management, of algorithmic decisions regarding access to resources and to education, of digital identity; responsibilities to promote children’s access to information and to protect them against exploitation; and responsibilities in doing so to listen to what children think about their interests and needs.

Four themes

The General Comment, as I say, is comprehensive. It’s not overlong and it’s well-written. Those who’re interested in digital policymaking ought to read it. I won’t attempt to summarise what it commends but will draw out four themes I think are overarching.

First, children’s rights in the digital environment are all-embracing. They’re about access to technology and access to content, about rights of self-expression and rights to privacy, about health and education, about enabling opportunity and protection from abuse (by adults and by other children). They’re about active participation, not just passive inclusion. They should not be reduced – as sometimes seems the case in digital debate – to a few issues that adults think most relevant to children such as sex abuse and education.

Second, children’s rights are about childrens’ rights, not adults’. Too much talk of children’s rights online has focused on potential impacts on the rights of adults. Policymakers should consider, too, how adults’ rights – or measures designed with adults’ rights in mind – affect the rights of children. Not doing so diminishes the significance of the CRC within the rights regime.

Third, children’s needs within the rights environment differ in important ways from those of adults – who have more resources they can use in their support – and from those of other children. Age matters, gender matters, context matters – including the different legal and parental frameworks experienced by children living different lives, as well as different social and economic backgrounds.  Assumptions that policymakers make about parental roles, especially, are not applicable to all.

Fourth, children’s rights require the full framework of interventions that are required for other rights: consultation, especially with children themselves; evidence-based policy development that considers trends in society and in technology as well as what’s happening today; legislation, regulation, judicial remedies; data gathering and monitoring; impact assessment.  It requires businesses and civil society, as well as governments, to respect children’s, as well as adults’, rights – and respecting children’s rights requires some special measures including protections against exploitation, constraints on advertising and rules on data-gathering.

And, more generally, in context

I’ve three more points to make arising from this, which concern digital policy in general rather than children in particular.

First, when thinking about the future digital society, for everyone not just for children, policymakers should focus more on outcomes, giving scope to shape those outcomes rather than hoping that technology will turn up trumps. For this to work, multistakeholder consultation and dialogue must be more than public-private partnership. But it also can’t simply rely on established civil society organisations which may not be as representative as they would like (or claim) to be, especially where vulnerable groups are concerned.  

Second, developing that dialogue’s not simple. It’s far too easy for it to rely on the articulate and easy-to-reach, especially the better educated or those in urban centres. Much of the international dialogue with ‘youth’ that takes place in internet discourse, for instance, is with highly-educated younger people who speak fluent English, often from privileged or wealthy backgrounds.  It isn’t really dialogue with ‘youth’ if it doesn’t include dialogue with the underprivileged, less-educated, non-metropolitan majority. The dissimilarities among the young, among children, and indeed in any demographic group, matter just as much as similarities.

Third, as the General Comment points out time and again, enabling rights is about what governments – ‘states parties’ in its jargon – do. Some governments will take it seriously; others are less rights-respecting. But it’s governments – not businesses or civil society – that have responsibilities in international law to enable rights, that can put rights into practice and can require compliance.  

The answer to bad government is good government, therefore, not less.  It’s citizens – in all their diversity; including children – that should (or should be able to) hold them accountable for how effectively they exercise responsibilities to rights across the board: civil and political; economic, social and cultural; the rights of women and of children; rights in the digital and the non-digital environment.

Image: Young teen doing schoolwork at home after UK schools close due to the Coronavirus, by Annie Sprat via

David Souter writes a weekly 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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