Around the globe, in the global North as well as the global South, digital media are there to stay with significant implications for child rights and children’s wellbeing online. Following the launch of their report to the Children’s Commissioner for England, in this post Amanda Third, Sonia Livingstone and Gerison Lansdown are advocating for a General Comment on children’s rights and the digital environment.

Digital media and children’s rights

Digital media are no longer luxuries, but are rapidly becoming essentials of modern existence – and this applies increasingly in the global South as well as the global North. Society’s growing reliance on digital environments has profound consequences for children’s rights.

However, many if not most states around the world are struggling to respond adequately to the unfolding changes in digital environments and their implications for children’s lives and society more broadly. Would they welcome a coherent, principled, evidence-based framework with which to recognise and address children’s rights and best interests? Having consulted key experts and children around the world, we argue that they would. In our report to the Children’s Commissioner for England, just released, we make the case for a General Comment on children’s rights and the digital environment, to guide the interpretation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) – the most widely ratified human rights treaty in the history of the UN.

We should explain that this recommendation does not come out of the blue. Since at least 2014, the impact of the digital on children’s rights has been acknowledged as a key issue for the global community. In 2014, the global community observed the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the UNCRC, which asserts that human rights instruments apply to children, delineates the particular rights of children to ensure they develop to their full potential, and sets out special mechanisms to deliver these. A Day of General Discussion held by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to mark this important milestone focused on ‘Digital media and children’s rights’. The resulting report concluded that:

States should adopt a national coordinating framework with a clear mandate and sufficient authority to coordinate all activities related to children’s rights and digital media and ICTs at cross-sectoral, national, regional and local levels and facilitate international cooperation.

But to the best of our knowledge, this is not yet happening even in wealthy countries. Witness the widespread hopes and fears, anxieties and confusion about the internet, as well as a flurry of state, regulatory and industry responses, often produced in haste and under pressure. Witness, too, the rising tensions between public and private sectors, between states, between families and the institutions of school, law enforcement and governments, and even between children and parents as societies struggle to manage socio-technological change. So, how can states receive the guidance they need? While not binding documents, General Comments carry the authority of the UN, they provide structured guidance in interpreting UNCRC articles on protection, privacy, participation, provision, education, safety, role of parents and much more, and they create the normative expectation that states will enact their recommendations that child rights advocates can point to in lobbying for them to meet their obligations to promote and protect children’s rights.

The need for evidence-based support and guidance for children, parents, and caregivers

An estimated one in three children worldwide already uses the internet. Much future growth in internet use will occur in the global South where children constitute between one third and a half of the population – most often via a mobile phone – and where the proportion of users under the age of 18 will grow significantly in the short term. As a consequence, many countries face the problem that ‘fast-paced, widespread growth often occurs far ahead of any understanding of what constitutes safe and positive use in digital contexts’, especially as the internet is generally designed for adults. Many policy, legislative and regulatory mechanisms do not adequately support and protect children online. Many young internet users around the world do not have the benefit of appropriate forms of adult guidance from parents, teachers and other caregivers. The need for reliable, evidence-based mechanisms and guidance spans the full range of children’s rights, but this is too often unrecognised or little understood in many countries. Such difficulties themselves tend to result in anxiety, impeding the search for proportionate, evidence-based, sustainable solutions that support children’s agency and rights.

The case for a General Comment on children and the digital environment is both compelling and urgent, because of:

  • the risks that children face in digital environments as well as the scale of the opportunities they may be excluded from – these are profound and impact on virtually all children’s rights;
  • the rapidity of change – children are often the first to engage with fast-developing digital environments, yet the consequences for their wellbeing are too often neglected or overlooked as states rush to embrace new economic opportunities in the absence of principled and practical ways to ensure respect, fulfilment and protection of children’s rights;
  • ‘the digital’ is not going to go away – if anything, the changes it is bringing to everyone’s lives, and the potential for conflicts between children and adults’ rights, and children’s protection and participation rights, are going to increase and intensify;
  • digital transformation is being driven by corporate interests that often pay little heed to children’s rights – we are witnessing the fundamental relocation of communication, learning, health, civic participation, social relationships and other societal processes onto proprietary platforms primarily motivated by profit, and while many constructive initiatives for children are instigated by business, many also collect and monetise children’s data in ways that seemingly evade government oversight and regulation.

Taking a balanced approach

It is important not to be swayed by these new risks into taking an overly protectionist approach. Digital media offer children extraordinary new opportunities – to gain much-needed information at low cost, to engage with affordable educational resources and knowledge, to overcome forms of discrimination or exclusion, to participate and be heard in meaningful decision-making processes, and much more. In meeting their commitments to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), states and child rights organisations are seizing on the attractive and scalable possibilities of using digital media to deliver health information, community resources, emergency response or other programme initiatives to children in hard-to-reach settings.

A General Comment on children and digital media must carefully balance guidance on a wide range of issues with adequate depth. It must, for example, ensure that digital literacy education and child-centred design accompany top-down policy initiatives; embed children’s voices and concerns in developing and implementing new digital resources; and ensure that business-led innovation is subject to effective national and international regulation that recognises children’s rights and is informed by risk impact assessments. Such challenges make a principled and authoritative framework imperative. Without such guidance, states will continue to struggle to meet their obligations to children, including instituting the vital regulatory checks and balances to ensure that businesses meet their responsibilities to children.

Whilst generating a General Comment on these issues is a complex task, the groundswell of international support on these issues renders it an achievable one. We must urgently seize the opportunity to encourage and enable states to take the steps they can to recognise and identify key trends; to marshal their resources to address early on the problems that can be foreseen before they become intractable; and to build the competent and trusted institutions required to anticipate future innovations and challenges. It is in this spirit that we call for a General Comment on children’s rights and the digital environment.

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.