Keynote speech

Prof. Dr. Sonia Livingstone

London School of Economics and Political Science, London

The future of children's rights in the digital age

Over the course of my career, I have spent some 20 years researching the meaning, use and consequences of children's engagement with the ever-changing 'new media'. I have spent time - mainly in Europe - in children's bedrooms, talking to families in their living rooms, observing the use of technology in classrooms, following the latest trends in social media and interviewing children and parents around the world.

I then used the results to advise policymakers and stakeholders - always hoping to maximise the opportunities for children online but minimise the risks. In the process, I have encountered the most fascinating puzzles and problems, perhaps even paradoxes.
The greater the opportunities for use, the greater the risk of harm

Much of the available research can be summarised by the principle 'the more, the more'. The more time children spend online, the more activities they engage in, the more they develop media skills, the more online opportunities they can take advantage of - and the greater the risk of harm they expose themselves to.

As the work of the EU Kids online network shows, the risks and opportunities have a positive correlation. This means that efforts to ensure children's safety on the Internet simultaneously restrict their freedoms. On the other hand, promoting their freedoms - to explore the internet, make new friends and engage in wider networks - creates more risks.

A few years ago, UNICEF - a children's rights organisation active in 190 countries around the world - invited me to help them with the growing demand from their country offices for research into internet use and the associated problems for children outside Europe's borders. What research should they conduct? How could they advance their agenda on children's rights globally?
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

My work with UNICEF has made me aware of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is officially monitored by UNICEF. It is an easy-to-understand text that has been signed by all UN member states except the USA.

It is a surprising text. Anne Holzscheiter points to the transformative power of the discourse to explain the extraordinary and unexpected enthusiasm with which the Convention on the Rights of the Child was received, even though it was originally intended as a simple addition to the already established human rights. The central change of direction in the debates - which lasted more than a decade longer than expected - was from children as passive and silent subjects in need of special protection to children as independent rights holders, including the right to co-determination and co-determination.

As a media and communications researcher, my work on the Convention on the Rights of the Child has enabled me to ask familiar questions in a new way.

1. instead of asking technology-focussed questions (What impact does the internet have on ... ?), we can ask a more contextual question: What does the digital world do in terms of children's learning, play and development? In this way we escape the limitations of media impact research, moral panic and media-centrism.

2. recalling the paradox that risks and opportunities go hand in hand, this means that the study of children's rights in the digital age could begin with two overarching questions:

    When and how does internet use contribute positively to children's well-being by opening up opportunities that benefit their developmental and life chances?
    When and how is internet use problematic in a child's life by increasing the risk of harm that can diminish the child's wellbeing

Three key points are usually at the centre of the summary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child:

    Rights to protection refer to the multitude of threats to children's dignity, survival and development.
    Rights to care refer to all resources necessary for the survival and development of the child.
    Rights to participation enable children to take part in processes relevant to their development and to play an active role in society.

3. the task of the research is then to examine the specific harms from which children need to be protected, to analyse such contextual conditions that create hardships for children (in order to guide the provision of resources) and to explore their opportunities for action and the consequences of participation.

With regard to children's rights to protection in the digital world, we can build on research on the following aspects:

    Sexual harassment and exploitation of children.
    The creation and dissemination of child abuse photos.
    The availability of (diverse, extreme) pornography.
    New threats to privacy, identity and reputation.
    Exploitation, abuse and tracking of personal data.
    Hostile, hateful and bullying content and behaviour towards each other
    Attempts to persuade children to engage in self-harming behaviour, suicide, bulimia or drugs

Not only are children themselves aware of these risks - they are also increasingly backed up by investigations, prosecutions and clinical experience.

However, it should be noted that much of the research focuses on the risks rather than the actual harms - for example, it focuses on children being exposed to pornography rather than the harms that might result. This means that most research focuses on the risk of a risk (e.g. the likelihood of viewing pornography) rather than the risk of actual harm (partly because research into the negative consequences of pornography is difficult).

It is thought-provoking that the overall harm has decreased, not increased, in the 20 years that American and European children have had access to the internet. Such statistics lead international experts to claim that children do not need more protection overall because of the internet. Instead, the internet has become one of many places where abuse exists - which in turn means new challenges for child protection.

In contrast, Barnardo's, a major UK charity, recently published a report showing that the internet has changed abuse and sexual exploitation - precisely because of its affordances: it facilitates contact between children and strangers, normalises sexualised violence, and anonymity gives them a sense of safety. This change, which many intuitively believe to be the right one, leads to problems with regard to a legal framework. This is why, for example, new digital rights are being discussed and also whether the conventions on children's rights should not be revised.

Undoubtedly, some researchers on digital media are currently rethinking the most important aspects (not only abuse, but also privacy, identity, freedom of expression and education) of human rights in a digital age. Even if we argue that only the mediation of rights is changing, it is clear that this fact also has an impact on the aspects themselves.

These are controversial empirical questions. Perhaps it is not so important for the legal framework whether the aspects change, but whether our current concepts (of abuse, identity, privacy, etc.) are abstract enough to always adapt to continuous change. So far, I assume so.

In connection with the idea of participation in the digital world, we can build on research into the following aspects:

    Contact with peers for mutual exchange, networking and collaboration.
    User-friendly forums for children and young people.
    Child-led initiatives for local and global change.

On these points, I see less debate about whether the internet is reshaping rights and more about how to deal with the clash of competing rights - usually between protection and participation.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child assures that children's voices should be heard "in all matters affecting the child" and that implementation should be "in accordance with the child's development" and "in the best interests of the child".

But what exactly is in the best interests of the child, to what extent children can influence decisions that affect them according to their stage of development - this is the subject of debate in research. The decision is often conservative, risk-averse and favours protection over participation. Accordingly, at least in the northern hemisphere, restrictive approaches to children's internet use are the norm, both at home and at school.

There are interesting experiments in public forums that invite even relatively young children to participate in the virtual world and express their opinions in a meaningful way. In practice, however, it often turns out that only the privileged "usual suspects" can take advantage of such opportunities and that opportunities to have a say often remain ineffective or unheard.

The question of participation, especially worldwide, points to a more general problem in the context of children's rights. Like all treatises on fundamental rights, they are written in a universal language. This creates enormous advantages - rhetorically and normatively/legally - for the corresponding regulations and practice within a country as well as across borders. However, children's lives are decisively influenced by specific cultural contexts and their meaning is strongly anchored locally.

The application of universal legal frameworks in certain contexts can, in extreme cases, turn rights into wrongs when outsiders proclaim foreign values while violating local customs and misinterpreting or disrupting established community rituals. I could call this another paradox! For example, how should children's rights organisations support the right to freely express one's sexual identity? And should they create easier opportunities for children to have a say and participate, even if this conflicts with family or societal traditions?

    Harvard historian Samuel Moyn notes that it is impossible to move from proclaiming formal entitlements to ensuring real conditions without considering different paths and controversial political decisions.
    Consequently, child rights expert Karl Hanson calls for us to critically question the intended and unintended consequences of developing laws, policies and programmes in the name of children's rights.

A global approach

To meet these challenges, we cannot create research projects for the South from the Northern Hemisphere. Instead, we need a partnership approach to intergovernmental science, combining accurate research methods with interpersonal dialogue to understand and respond to local circumstances. This is exactly what is happening with a welcome expansion of the evidence base.

We are slowly beginning to understand the differences in internet use in different countries - it tends to be mobile, communally owned rather than individually owned, often gendered, relentlessly commercial, largely unregulated, contains little public content or even any in the local language, and so on. Perhaps these findings will help us understand that a universal legal framework must be underpinned by respect for the complexity and diversity of children's everyday lives.

It also challenges the research intentions and policies already developed in the Northern Hemisphere, as we have reached a crucial tipping point. Two thirds of the nearly three billion people who use the internet live in the southern hemisphere. And that's where the next billion live. If you consider that the proportion of children in developing countries is significantly higher than in developed countries, this means that around one in three people using the internet worldwide is under the age of 18.

So to understand children's rights in the digital world, it's time to take a more global view, and to understand internet use on a global scale, it's time to recognise the significant number of children who use the internet.

In terms of children's provision rights, we can build on research on the following aspects:

    Formal and informal learning resources and educational content.
    Easily accessible and subject-specific wealth of information and the digital skills to make good use of it.
    Opportunities for creativity, exploration and entertainment.
    Access to and representation of their own culture and heritage.
    Forms of compensation, representation, counselling and support.

I would have thought that this central right would be the clearest. However, it is unexpectedly tricky to inform policy about relevant research. Attention should also be paid to the problems of initiatives such as One Laptop Per Child and the like, which provide children with mobile devices and western sources of information without really understanding local hierarchies or traditions.

To focus on the problem, I would like to refer here to Isaiah Berlin's classic distinction between positive and negative freedoms. Children's rights to protection are a case of negative freedoms - for example, that children should grow up without abuse and violence. Negative freedoms are usually less controversial than positive ones, as they aim to eliminate suffering in a minimalist approach to rights.

However, the care of children (as well as participation rights) is an example of positive rights. And these can be controversial as they tend to assert a maximalist view - often prescribing what the good life can or should be in an implicitly normative, Western and capitalist way. The right to education (or play or identity or culture) is asserted without debate, but where do we get the right to prescribe that children should grow up not only without fear of harm, but also in terms of a late modern notion of participatory democracy or a Western capitalist view of learning as preparation for the information economy?
for the information economy?

I have noticed that few policy makers can convincingly argue what constitutes very good provision for children who spend time on the internet. Do they realise that putting forward a positive idea would cross the line into a maximalist prescription that imposes our own values on others? Who gets to decide what is better?

But if those who have children's best interests at heart don't know or articulate what they want, the market is happy to fill in the gaps in our imagination. While a minimalist approach might be prudent, I'd like to see us at least imagine - and make possible - a more sophisticated approach to catering for underage internet users.
The inclusion of children's voices in the governance of the internet

So I have used the rights to protection, provision and participation to show how the translation of social science findings to children's rights presents some important challenges in relation to the following aspects:

    the harm that underpins the right to protection,
    the agency that underpins the right to participation,
    and the needs that underpin the right to care.

A recent multinational conference with children showed that they themselves believe there is a strong and positive link between rights and the internet:

    Access to the internet and mobile technology is a fundamental right.
    The internet and mobile technology are the media that children currently use to exercise their rights to information, education and participation.
    The relevant skills (in the area of digital and printed media, information, etc.) form the basis for accessing and effectively using the internet, which is the only way to exercise rights in the digital world.
    Children understand that rights also come with responsibilities and want to be included in the relevant political consultations.

This poses a number of challenges for political decision-makers:

    The internet is largely unable to recognise the age of the people using it, which in turn makes it difficult to ensure rights for minors using the internet - or even to evaluate the extent to which their rights are currently supported - and the norms that have emerged outside the internet, which have children's capabilities and welfare in mind, are neglected in the process.
    The Internet is fundamentally a proprietary system, so commercial interests are now influencing communication, play, learning and even abuse on an unprecedented scale.
    The Internet is essentially a global network, so that children's rights (the responsibility of the state according to the Convention on the Rights of the Child) are affected by a system that is beyond national jurisdiction (with the possible exception of US jurisdiction), and on an unprecedented scale.

Arguing that the internet is changing too fast, is too international and too complex, states are ceding responsibility for children's rights (and rights in general) to a fragile mix of good practice guidance, arbitrary self-regulation, sporadic efforts towards social-community responsibility and multinational forums with no central point of contact.

At this point I come to my final paradox: although children's use of the Internet is hailed, worried about or envisaged, children as a specific group of Internet users are barely mentioned - despite the fact that they make up a third of these users.

Hardly any of the burgeoning Internet rights conventions mention children at all, and if they do, then only as victims of illegal child abuse. The reason for this is that children have always been seen as an impediment to adult internet rights in debates about internet governance (child protection is a covert argument in favour of censorship etc.). This conjures up a world in which adults have participation rights, but are hardly dependent on protection rights (and children should at best be granted protection rights, but hardly any participation rights).

As a result, people who are most in favour of internet rights and freedoms are the least likely to recognise the rights of one third of humanity - children. In contrast to marginalisation based on ethnicity, gender, sexuality or disability, age seems to be invisible. Children are at best someone else's problem (usually their parents') and at worst an obstacle on the path to adult rights.

In contrast, I have argued that children's rights in the digital world must not only be protected, but recognised and supported. To meet these challenges, we need a truly global process of dialogue and deliberation that must include the voices and experiences of children.

So it is with a mixture of enthusiasm and cautious caution that I have argued in favour of a framework for exploring children's rights in the digital age. Such a legal framework allows for a structured research endeavour, strategic foresight and ethical inspiration to empower children.

Taking into account the difficulties, this legal framework allows us to ambitiously change the usual and often decontextualised questions of technical meaning, so that we can better understand and contextualise the embedding of digital media in the world of children. And perhaps we will also reshape children's rights along the way.

In addition, both values and processes will be addressed with which science can advocate for expanded, theoretical guidelines and practical approaches. This will, I hope, avoid naïve extrapolations from the northern hemisphere to the south and, I also hope, generate new ideas and thinking about children's lives and children's rights as internet use, and consequently our research agenda, becomes ever more global.

Translated from the English by Verena Mertz.

Updated by: Giard