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A third of the world’s Internet users, says UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children report, on Children in a Digital World, are younger than 18. How they use it shapes their attitudes, behaviour, opportunities, and therefore shapes their futures. That deserves more – and more sophisticated – attention from the Internet’s stakeholders than it gets.

Two attitudes

Talk about the Internet and children tends to focus on two themes: the Internet as answer and the Internet as problem.

On the one hand, Internet advocates argue, the Internet empowers. It opens up a whole new world of content which children can explore for themselves and with their friends, learning in new ways, exploring their identities, finding out forbidden truths about (for example) their health and sexuality, enlightening and empowering.

On the other, others fear, it exposes them to risk – new ways in which old harms of bullying, harassment and sexual predation can ‘take away their childhood’; new risks of isolation and alienation as solitary browsing replaces communal play; new ways in which entertainment, sport and sex distract children from learning other things they need to know.

As often with the Internet, these attitudes are focused too much on the Internet and they’re too polarised. The Internet’s not going to go away. It has and will change childhood, and much of that is to the good. Nor can the risks it poses be treated as collateral damage. UNICEF’s report sums up what’s needed in the phrase ‘Harness the good, limit the harm.’

But what is childhood?

Let’s get some context and some nuance. Three points to bear in mind.

First, childhood’s not attenuated adulthood. It’s a stage in life in which we have different capabilities and different experiences, in which we learn how to be adults. Children have special needs, but don’t have power over the policies that determine how they’re treated. Hence the UN Children’s Rights Convention; and hence the need for policies to harness good and limit harm.

Second, childhood’s staged. We are, think, behave differently at six, ten, fourteen, eighteen. We become more capable of making judgements over time. We use different software at different ages (look, for example, at the different social media that are fashionable in different school year groups). We understand content in different ways. We are less or more capable of learning from the good and protecting ourselves against the harms.

Third, children are diverse. Some are self-confident, others anxious (not least in their Internet experience). Some have supportive parents, others parents that ignore (or, perhaps, abuse) them. Some are wealthy, most are poor. Some live in families, communities, societies that encourage them to explore their own identities, others in those that constrain them within pre-determined norms (of class, gender, caste, etc.)

So what to do?

‘Children’s rights in the digital age,’ says Sonia Livingstone, co-lead of Global Kids Online, ‘are presently undermined by a mix of innocence, ignorance and worse.’ Can we find ways to embed them into policy and practice on the Internet (and to embed the Internet in the policy and practice of enabling children’s rights)?

The Children’s Rights Convention focuses on three themes: protection, provision and participation. If Internet and public policy makers are to advance towards UNICEF’s goal of harnessing the good and mitigating harm, they need to overcome their innocence, ignorance and worse. UNICEF’s report – and other work of other agencies – explores the different ways this might be done. I’ll focus on four points.

Recognising that it matters

First, policymakers need to recognise more clearly that this matters. What we experience in childhood shapes our lives. Those who are privileged as children are likely to enjoy advantages in adulthood; those who are abused will likely suffer lifelong.

Internet policy is made by adults (particularly, it might be said, by men, and Northern men to boot). A lot of talk is heard about engaging ‘youth’ in Internet decision-making fora, but ‘youths’ aren’t children: they’re older, have different needs and interests, attitudes and preferences. (It’s also proved hard to make this youth engagement socially inclusive: not many of those at international fora come from disadvantaged backgrounds.)

If a third of Internet users are children, then policies for the Internet should pay far more attention to their experience and their needs than’s currently the case – which requires more understanding and fewer assumptions.

Understand more

The starting point is understanding. Too many assumptions are made by policymakers – and Internet decision-makers – about what children do online and what they think about it. We need to know much more about the real experiences that children have, and how they vary - by age and gender, in different countries and from different social backgrounds, with different levels of exposure to the Internet and different levels of support from schools and parents.

Better, then, to ask children what they do, where they access the Internet, with what support; what they like and what they fear; what would improve their Internet experience, what impact the Internet is having on other aspects of their lives.

Global Kids Online’s an international research project led from UNICEF and the London School of Economics. It’s developed an extensive research toolkit and published findings from diverse locations. Its tools aren’t just about learning what children do, but also enabling them to participate in determining policies that affect their lives.

Most children, it finds so far, are generally positive about online opportunities, but they lack digital skills, do not use the Internet in school as much as was expected, are likelier to seek support from friends rather than teachers or parents. Policymakers should explore these tools.

Connect the online with the offline

Too much policymaking around the Internet and children has been binary. The Internet is not all good, and nor is it predominantly bad.

  • Children need the ability to explore their world – to play and learn online through their own endeavours, just as they play and learn offline.

  • They need content that is relevant to them and not just content that is apt for adults. Children’s TV was an important part of my child world, a safe and trusted space. How easy is it for children to find today’s equivalent online?

  • They need the skills to judge what content’s safe and what is not, whom they can trust online and whom they should avoid.

  • Children’s rights to expression and information matter just as much as adults’, and this should be clear in public policy. But those rights (of adults and of children) are not rights to bully, harass or intimidate. Abuses are abuses and have consequences.

Policies concerning children and the Internet need to recognise that online and offline experiences cannot be separated. This applies to education just as much as it applies to risk. And they should reflect the whole experience of children’s lives online – access, learning, protection, participation – rather than being focused on one or another.

Recognise who has decision-making power

Lastly, we need to recognise who really shapes online environments where children are concerned. That’s not governments, teachers or parents; it’s the businesses that run the services that children use, including social networks (Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp, (less fashionably) Facebook) and those they use for music, entertainment, information, gossip. Two points here regarding these.

Many online platforms, in theory, have age limits – but no-one takes them seriously because they’re not enforceable. Some have parental controls, but few parents use them and they’re easy to evade.

And it’s increasingly difficult for platforms to insist that they’re just platforms, never publishers. Their algorithms curate what people (including children) read and view. The purpose of those algorithms is to maximise the revenue derived from users. That impacts on children as it does on adults. How comfortable are we (and they) with children’s online behaviour being commodified.

In conclusion

A third of Internet users are children. There’s a lot of talk about how they use the Internet, but too little understanding. Policymakers need to pay more attention and give more nuanced thought to children’s experience online.

Next week: building capacity for cybersecurity.

Image by Amella Wells used under Creative Commons license

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.