The internet offers a range of advantages but also a multitude of risks for children who are using it. Two key issues in this context are the need for developing critical literacy skills as well as the lack of child-centered design in online applications. In this post, LSE Professor Sonia Livingstone, who is currently contributing to the UK Government’s Internet Safety Strategy, illustrates why it is about time to give proper consideration to the needs and rights of children online.

“The internet must be made a better place for children.” So says the Lords’ Communications Committee, headlining its new report on “Growing up with the internet.” Publicity for the report has focused on its key recommendations, including that:

The report was published just after the Government announced its new Internet Safety Strategy to ensure the UK becomes “the safest place in the world for young people to go online.” And that announcement in turn came hot on the heels of the Children’s Commissioner for England’s report, Growing up Digital, which also called for a Children’s Digital Ombudsman, digital citizenship in schools, and the importance of child rights in the digital age.

So it seems that the internet is on the minds of many policy makers and practitioners who work with children, as well as parents and, indeed, children themselves. This in turn is because, clearly, the internet has quickly become a necessity rather than a luxury in children’s lives, and parents, educators and governments are struggling to keep up with the risks and opportunities it brings.

As an expert advisor to this new report by the House of Lords, I’ve been privileged to witness some great insights about what should be done. The report makes urgent recommendations, each carefully evidence-based (do check the written and oral evidence submitted).

  • It calls for an ambitious programme of digital literacy – which children and parents really need to understand the new digital environment, and which must go beyond narrow conceptions of e-safety, important though that is.
  • But since we cannot teach young children everything about the fast-changing complexities of the internet (even adults can’t grasp half of it), the report also calls for an industry commitment to child-centred design – for services targeted at children and for all those actually used by children.

I see this call – to anticipate child rights issues in designing online services and policies for their use – as a radical but vital contribution. Society cannot continue being reactive, discovering too late that services for “everyone” are used by children, sometimes literally at their own risk, or realizing the unintended consequences of ignoring children’s needs and rights only when something goes wrong.

This is inefficient, expensive, damages the reputation of businesses and the trust of parents and civil society. It also positions children as the canary in the coal mine, making them bear the risk for problems that we can already anticipate based on existing research and prior experience.

So what would it mean to design for a child-rights-friendly internet?

The key recommendation is for:

“Minimum standards for child-friendly design, filtering, privacy, data collection, terms and conditions of use, and report and response mechanisms for all businesses in the internet value chain, public bodies and the voluntary sector” (para 366).

This is supported by a series of design suggestions – for minimum standards for reporting and response to child users’ concerns, transparency and accountability for filters and data processing operations, default-on privacy settings and content filters (which adults can turn off, of course), and so on. And for a code of conduct by which all this can be brought together, monitored and evaluated. Crucial, too, is the expectation that:

“The Government should establish minimum standards of design in the best interests of the child for internet products. For the avoidance of doubt this is for all products that might reasonably be expected to attract a large proportion of children, not only those designed with children in mind” (para 299).

Too often, a duty of care is accepted for services targeted at children but not for all the other services that children use as part of “the general population” (which indeed they are). Yes, this may bear a cost, as the report also recognizes, stating that:

“Minimum standards should incorporate the child’s best interests as a primary consideration, and in doing so require companies to forgo some of their current design norms to meet the needs of children” (para 301).

Some may balk at this, but it’s worth remembering that the UK has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as so is obligated to ensure that businesses meet their responsibilities regarding child rights.

Perhaps the most telling claim in the report is that:

“We have found that there is resistance to providing services which incorporate the support and respect for rights that would enable a better internet experience for all children as they explore the wider internet” (para 298).

The internet is here to stay – and so are its child users. It’s time we prioritised their needs and rights, for the benefit of children now and society both now and in the future.

This post gives the views of the author and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.