“Until now, protecting children on the Web has primarily meant keeping them off it,” wrote NPR’s Anya Kamenetz at TechnologyReview.com. Exactly. That has been the direct experience of children all over the world.
Because for some 20 years, all around the world, governments, advocates, businesspeople, educators, parents have actually been trying to uphold our children’s rights of protection by ignoring their participation rights (those of expression, conscience, participation, association, access to information and being consulted on matters that concern them). I’m referring to two of the three categories of rights enshrined in the 30-year-old UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the third category being their rights of provision. But I think we’re pivoting – at least becoming aware of how facile, fear-driven and unethical that old approach is.
“Until now” were the words with which the reporter started that first sentence. There are growing signs that 2020 will be the year that we stop defaulting to bans, surveillance and control and start getting creative about upholding the full range of our children’s rights in balance.
Here are some of those signs of momentum:
- The Committee on the Rights of the Child – the UN body that monitors implementation of the Convention worldwide, will soon issue a General Comment on children’s digital rights. That’s a big deal because this will be the first such statement from the Committee about the digital part of their lives and rights, the Committee’s reach is global, and general comments are the Committee’s authoritative interpretation of what’s expected of states that have ratified the Convention (so far every country on the planet except the United States).
- Young activists exercising their rights of participation have ever-increasing visibility and support. An obvious example is Greta Thunberg as Time’s Person of the Year; the BBC offers many more in this short piece and this longer one. Another is 12-year-old US activist Olivia Van Ledtje, who co-authored Spark Change, published this past fall.
- The 16 year-old NGO KidsRights just launched a “new non-political, non-religious digital ‘state’ that aims to transcend national borders and empower the global youth community.”
- The UK government is in the process of developing an ambitious “age appropriate design code” for digital providers, a process being watched by other countries. Scholars Mariya Stoilova and Sonia Livingstone, one of the consultants to that project, detail some of the challenges it faces here, including “the transnational nature of the Internet.”
- Australia’s eSafety Commissioner’s Office offered an important model for consulting youth in the development of a program designed to benefit them — in the creation of its “Safety by Design” program, unveiled last year (with the backstory from the Commissioner here).
- More and more scholarship grounding and calling for rights-based approaches that reject the “control paradigm” that has dominated youth digital safety, inclusion and citizenship practices worldwide – see the just-released Youth in Digital Society: Control Shift (with more examples of such scholarship in my review).
- And now reporters like Kamenetz in mainstream news are “talking” about youth digital rights even in my own country, the only one that hasn’t ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child!
4 proposed resolutions for 2020
To keep the momentum going, might the youth Internet safety field consider four resolutions? Or think of them as key best practices for research-grounded safety and citizenship education:
- Wrap digital safety and citizenship in a child rights framework, where scholarship says it belongs.
- Consult the citizens, the intended beneficiaries of this work, as outlined by the CRC. The scholars behind Control Shift prescribe partnering with youth to make education in digital safety, citizenship and inclusion effective – not only to make it relevant to them but also to ground it in their digital practices rather than our assumptions.
- Map citizenship ed to citizen development. Make sure it supports the developmental imperatives of young people, such as identity exploration and finding their place in the world. Design their education so that it’s for their benefit (self- and citizen-actualization), not adults’ benefit (youth compliance and behavior management).
- Stop conflating safety and citizenship. An example of this confusion was reflected in a recent New York Times article about “how to avoid the murky waters of trolldom.” Though there’s some good advice on that (you’ll find clearer, more succinct advice in “Counterspeech DOs and DON’Ts,” recently developed by a group of Internet user advocates), the article quotes educators who are blending safety and citizenship. They frame the latter as responsible tech use or “how we treat each other online,” which limits citizenship – focusing it on what are called “negative freedoms” (freedom “from”) and ignoring the positive, self-actualizing ones (freedom “to”) that honor participation rights and support civic engagement and change making. How is it so easy for us adults to forget about the participation part of (digital) citizenship, knowing that it’s a developmental imperative for children to find their place in the world?
Cross-sectoral is essential
We don’t yet know if the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s forthcoming General Comment will go so far as to call for what some child rights activists are advocating: a child-friendly “re-design of the online environment,” the ambitious goal of the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office. But some of the “re-design” elements people advising the ICO and the UN Committee are calling for include 1) not using features that manipulate kids or make sites and apps sticky (think recommendation engines, infinite scrolling, video autoplay, maybe even clickbait), 2) not allowing youth to give out their physical location and 3) allowing minors to delete their data from a company’s servers. They’re also calling on the industry to explain what’s done with their data in “child-friendly language” and to give youth access to mental health resources.
I’m a fan of many of these, of course, but I don’t believe they will be attained anytime soon strictly through regulation or public pressure. It’s only logical that the re-design of something needs to include the designers. We can’t know if all these proposed design elements are feasible without understanding the technology (through those who develop it) and the “internal logics” of the industry, described by scholars at HBR.org in the context of ethics. The industry can’t reach those design goals and avoid unintended consequences without the input of children, caregivers, educators and researchers. And policymakers can’t regulate without understanding both constituents’ and providers’ perspectives and constraints. So I hope that all stakeholders can employ what Harvard scholar Sheila Jasanoff calls the “technologies of humility,” engaging all stakeholders in this process – including youth – as “active, imaginative agent[s], as well as source[s] of knowledge, insight and memory” in the coming decade.
- “Putting children at the centre: is re-designing the digital environment possible?”
at a London School of Economics blog
- “Does keeping kids offline breach their human rights?” in the MIT Technology Review site
- In mentioning positive and negative freedoms above, I was referencing a book by University of Oslo researcher Tijana Milosevic, Protecting Children Online?, where she writes, “In thinking about rights of protection versus rights of participation, it is helpful to analogize ‘positive and negative freedoms,’ whereby protection rights are akin to negative freedoms (freedom from) and participation to positive freedoms (freedom and ability to).”
- “Children’s Rights in the Digital Age” from UNICEF and the Young & Well Cooperative Research Center in Australia, 2014
- “Children’s and Young People’s Rights in the Digital Age: An Emerging Agenda,” lead article of a special issue of the journal New Media & Society, 2017
- Comments from the global public for the Committee on the Rights of the Child’s forthcoming “General Comment on Children’s Rights in Relation to the Digital Environment” (2019)
- “A pivotal book for digital safety, citizenship” in this blog
- With media literacy education a pillar of digital citizenship, noting here that federal legislation to support media literacy instruction in US schools – the Digital Citizenship and Media Literacy Act, introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) is in the works.
- “3 reasons to put youth Internet safety in the youth rights framework” in Medium.com