How can children’s rights be fulfilled in the digital environment?

Sonia Livingstone


This article draws on work published previously in Livingstone (2014) and Livingstone (2017)

What rights do children have online? And who will ensure they are addressed? The first of these questions is often answered simply, by saying: »Rights that people have offline must also be protected online« (NETmundial 2014). What’s less clear, at least in practice, is whether children are included in the category of »people«, especially when they are rarely represented in internet governance deliberations or remembered when designing terms and conditions or other consumer-facing services (Livingstone 2015a). The second question is rarely answered with clarity. Stakeholders concerned with child rights are not always alert to the challenges of the digital. Those concerned with internet governance and digital rights are not always alert to the specific needs and rights of child users. Governments are struggling to work out what they can require of transnational commercial providers. Parents and teachers are struggling to keep up.

So while children and young people are simultaneously hailed as pioneers of the digital age and feared for as its innocent victims, the opportunities for children online remain underexplored and inadequately supported, and attention to the risks tends both to lack effective solutions for the vulnerable while being overly restrictive of most children’s opportunities. One reason may be 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 (Livingstone et al. 2015) except by marketers; their online voices are rarely heard by those with power to act in their interests (Third et al. 2014); 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 (Macenaite 2016).

Is this poised to change? Policy and standards-setting child rights organisations – including the European Commission (2013) and Council of Europe (no date) and, closer to home in the UK, the House of Lords (Select Committee on Communications, 2017) and Children’s Commissioner for England (2017) – 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« (2017). 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 (Adler, 2017) from the »internet of toys«; the exploitative practices of age-blind commercial bodies (Chester, 2017); the heavy-handed criminalisation of teenage explorations of sexuality (Hinduja & Patchin 2010); the amplification of child sexual abuse through image sharing and web-streaming by paedophile networks (Brown 2016); 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 (Livingstone & Carr 2017). Such cases hit the headlines, it seems, on a daily basis, with Facebook’s leaked moderation policy a recent case in point (Hopkins 2017).

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