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Europe’s big step backward for youth rights online, offline

Young people and parents everywhere should know that, where youth rights are concerned, Europe just took a big step backward. Even though every single one of the European Union’s 28 countries has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, whose Article 12 states that “children” (people under 18) have the right to express their views in all matters affecting them, a European agreement that greatly affects teens has been made entirely without their views or participation. It was reached even without the views of adult experts on child online rights or protection. Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which is expected to be ratified this month and become law in 2018, was unexpectedly, inexplicably modified in a closed-door meeting called a Trialogue to require anyone under 16 to get parental consent to use online services, SC Magazine reported, in effect moving the so-called social media minimum age up from 13 to 16 for European youth. [Sometimes referred to as “secret EU lawmaking,” Trialogues are private meetings of representatives of the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Council.]

What a trialogue looks like: Economic Governance trialogue meeting at the Eureopean Parliament, Sept. 2011 (photo by Pietro Naj-Oleari; CC licensed)

What a trialogue looks like: Economic Governance trialogue meeting at the Eureopean Parliament, Sept. 2011 (photo by Pietro Naj-Oleari; CC licensed)

Demeaning treatment

“Children are consistently overlooked by internet governance decisions,” wrote EU Kids Online’s founding researcher and psychology professor Sonia Livingstone. Their intelligence, agency and capacity for leadership online as well as offline are too consistently overlooked too. “At best, they are treated as vulnerable individuals – not the independent rights-bearers of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child [UNCRC].” She cited the international Internet governance body Netmundial as stating that the “rights that people have offline must also be protected online.”

Right before the Trialogue’s decision, Dr. Livingstone had co-authored a paper on the subject. Its title, “One in Three: Internet Governance and Children’s Rights,” had spotlighted the fact that a third of the planet’s Internet users are under 18. The European Union has failed to seek the input of a significant portion of Internet users on one of Europe’s most important Net-related regulatory directives in decades.

Zero transparency

“Children and young people have been ill-served … and I am afraid the [European] Commission must shoulder most of the blame,” wrote another of the paper’s co-authors, UK online child protection expert John Carr in a blog post about his investigation into how the GDPR’s surprise modification about teens came about. “More than anything, [Trialogues in general and the GDPR one last month in particular] show the world that children’s rights as internet users are not being treated with the respect or seriousness they deserve within or by the Commission as well as other key EU institutions.”

Not getting teens’ input on a decision affecting them was only one way the change to the GDPR ignores, if not violates, their rights. Another way is the unbalanced treatment their rights are getting. Their right of protection is often discussed, but young people’s rights of participation, expression, association and conscience are severely overlooked.

Participation & expression not lesser rights

“Even when specific provision is made for children, it focuses heavily on child protection, especially in relation to illegal activities that threaten children,” Livingstone blogged. “This is important, for sure. But beyond this, children’s right to protection must somehow be balanced against their right to participation, since addressing the former in isolation risks the unintended consequence of infringing the latter.” [See this post of mine about the three categories of rights that UNCRC signatories are supposed to protect, based on what I learned from earlier work by Livingstone. Unfortunately, the US is one of two countries in the world that have not ratified the UNCRC; the other is Somalia.]

Janice Richardson, a longtime champion of youth digital rights and consultant to the Council of Europe, wrote last month that the new GDPR will “deprive young people of educational and social opportunities in a number of ways, yet would provide no more (and likely even less) protection.” Building on what Ms. Richardson wrote, here are some of the negative impacts of the new GDPR: It…

  • Ignores the skills youth already have and creates a false sense of security and disincentive to help them increase those skills and other internal safeguards such as resilience and the literacies of successful digital engagement: social literacy, media literacy and digital literacy.
  • Creates a chilling effect – “How much fun, communication, creativity, participation and learning has also been banned? Can teenagers really return to pre-digital days?” Richardson wrote. And it will have a similar chilling effect on new services for youth to the effect the U.S.’s Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) has had on children’s Web services by increasing the cost of doing business.
  • Sends more kids “underground.” The only difference between this regulation and COPPA is it gives even older kids an incentive to lie about their age – at least those not interested in seeking their parents’ help (though a 2011 study found that most U.S. parents of “under age” Facebook users had helped their kids sign up!). “This higher age threshold may incentivize children between the ages of 13 and 15 to lie about their age,” Richardson wrote. Sending kids underground (or using workarounds without parental help) has the unintended consequence of lessening parental input at a point in kids’ lives when that guidance is much needed and very often sought by their children.
  • Makes no allowance for at-risk youth. “Sadly, we know that some parents do not always act in their child’s best interests,” Richardson wrote, and some children are pretty much on their own. “The Internet can represent a lifeline for children to get the help they need when they are suffering from abuse, living with relatives who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, or seeking confidential LGBT support services, to name a few. Although the new proposed text makes an exception for direct counseling services, we know that peer support through media platforms is very often more important for young people under physical or mental duress and can be the tipping point for encouraging them to seek professional help.”
  • Creates a new, geographical kind of digital divide – different rights for youth in different regions. Only Europeans under 16 will have to gain their parents’ consent to use social media services. The UNCRC doesn’t distinguish between the rights of children on one continent and those of another, yet the new GDPR affects every company that serves Europeans, whether or not the company is in Europe, Computer Weekly cites legal experts as saying.
  • Sends the message that Europe doesn’t take the UNCRC as seriously as previously thought, undermining its influence worldwide.
  • Further takes away the agency youth need to be safe, effective citizens in increasingly transparent and participatory media and societies. They need more agency not less, and the new GDPR not only takes agency away from people under 16, it sends them the message that they are potential victims who get protected by parents and laws not themselves, each other and their communities. See my post about agency as fundamentally essential to digital and any other kind of citizenship.

It’s past time to stop reducing young people’s rights in the name of protecting them – to honor (in the case of the non-signatory U.S.) at least the spirit of the planet’s most widely agreed upon document on children’s rights, now that it’s more than a quarter of a century old. At the very least, we can incorporate into our policymaking what we’ve learned from peer-reviewed research about what helps and harms our children, the people who will soon be making policy and caring for this networked planet.

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