The perception of children’s rights online needs to change, argue LSE’s Sonia Livingstone and Western Sydney University’s Amanda Third, who together prepared a special issue of New Media and Society: Children and young people’s rights in the digital age: An emerging agenda.

Children and young people are simultaneously hailed as pioneers of the digital age and feared for as its innocent victims. Whilst children are frequently a primary target for research, policy and practice with a protectionist focus, the opportunities for children online remain underexplored and inadequately supported. We argue that this is because the internet is generally imagined as an adult resource as regards provision, governance and ideology. Discussions about what internet users do or want, or what the public understands or deserves, tacitly assume those users and publics are adult. Meanwhile, children’s online activities are rarely measured except by marketers; their online voices are rarely heard by those with power to act in their interests; adult rights in digital spaces frequently trump those of children; and the task of ensuring their rights in digital environments is passed from pillar to post rather than addressed head on.

Is this poised to change? Policy and standards-setting child rights organizations – including the European Commission and Council of Europe and, closer to home in the UK, the House of Lords and Children’s Commissioner for England – are now paying attention, seeking to advance children’s information, education and participation rights while protecting their privacy and safety. For instance, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe just committed to “promoting the rights of the child in the digital environment within our national parliaments and in our contacts with other national and international stakeholders.”

Sadly, they are provoked to do so in part by the highly visible and adverse consequences of failing to provide for the rights and needs of child internet users. Think, for example, of hacked data from the ‘internet of toys’; the exploitative practices of age-blind commercial bodies; the heavy-handed criminalization of teenage explorations of sexuality; the amplification of child sexual abuse through image sharing and web-streaming by paedophile networks; the restrictions placed on children’s freedom of information (health, sexual and political) from censorious governments; and the seeming refusal of companies to recognise the very existence of their young users. Such cases hit the headlines, it seems, on a daily basis, with Facebook’s leaked moderation policy a recent case in point.

But finding solutions is proving difficult. Child rights bodies tend to hope that if they draw attention to infringements of children’s rights in digital environments, solutions will be forthcoming. Internet governance activists seem to hope that if they can underpin rights for the general public, perhaps adding efforts to prevent child sexual abuse activity online, the management of any remaining problems (however complex) can be safely left to parents.

In our recently-published special issue of New Media & Society on children’s rights in the digital age, we argue that this is partly because the internet is imagined, designed and governed for adults and adults alone. Until we reimagine the internet for everyone, not only will society fail to address children’s rights in digital environments, it will fail to address the problems that many adults encounter also. In other words, if children are treated as the exception that proves the rule, everyone loses. Here’s our thinking.

First, we observe that children are often referred to in public debate over rights in the digital environment to call attention to that which is threatened, innocence, privacy, freedom and human frailty. This figure of the child is enshrined in mainstream thinking about the digital projects both forwards and backwards in time:

  • Looking forward, the child is the subject who shall inherit the earth, bear the mantle of our legacy, and so adults invest the category of the child with all their hopes and aspirations, as well as their dystopian fantasies. As such, the child invites recognition of human possibility, and yet, by the same token, represents a site of necessary containment, and her proper socialization must be secured in order to preserve the future.
  • Looking backwards, the figure of the child highlights the difference between today’s childhood and the childhood adults experienced, pointing to cultural transformations over which we have little control. Children mark, that is, the (unnerving) pace of socio-technological change, which, together with the perception of children’s innocence and vulnerability, produces them as the objects of adult strategies of control.

Second, we agree with Barbara Arneil that the child is configured in this way as

‘a tool to illuminate the nature of the autonomous adult citizen by providing the perfect mirror within which to reflect the negative image of the positive adult form.’

In other words, as a boundary-marking figure, the child is hailed in popular discourses as vulnerable; supposedly the mirror opposite of adults. For example, debates over internet governance position the child as vulnerable precisely by comparison with an implicitly invulnerable adult subject of bills of rights (think of how that adult subject is always ready to claim their speech rights, to stand their ground online, and be in control of their privacy). One might even suppose that an unspoken (and unspeakable) anxiety about adult vulnerabilities explains the emotional hostility that mere mention of children can occasion in free speech circles, resulting in a strong desire to silence or exclude both children and those speaking for them.

Third, we argue that not only does this problematically construct adults as invulnerable, it also falsely constructs children as only vulnerable. This denies them rights that go beyond vulnerability, notably the right to participate in society as agents, as citizens, and as independent rights-bearers.

For these reasons, we contest the widespread positioning of children’s concerns as an exception to a tacit adult interpretation of ‘internet users’ or ‘the public’ or ‘human’ rights in relation to internet provision and governance. ‘Othering the child’ parallels all the other forms of ‘othering’ that exclude what is, taken together, surely the majority of the population (the old, poor, disabled, displaced, disadvantaged or marginalized).

Such an exceptionalist strategy, in short, constructs a problematic digital and rights-holding subject (implicitly adult, able-bodied, English-speaking, privileged), thereby undermining critical debate. This blinds research, policy and practice to the rising clamour of problems that should and do concern us – not as anomalous but as normative. The positive implication, however, is that if only we can rethink the internet user – the public – in inclusive terms, we can jettison the singular, normative voice (itself inherently unstable and vulnerable to contestation) by which rights claims are asserted and, instead, open up a space for diverse rights claims that recognises a much broader spectrum of human needs and rights.

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