Even though the United States is the only country on the planet that hasn’t ratified the nearly 34-year-old UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, US-based companies that serve kids and teens around the world no longer have any excuse not to uphold their rights.
Why is that the case? Not “only” because young people’s lives are now “digital by default,” as psychology professor Sonia Livingstone wrote, or because one in every three of the world’s Internet users are under 18 or because the Convention has been updated to define their rights in digital contexts – but also because they now have guidance from the UK-based Digital Futures Commission on how to bake in children’s rights. This is a game-changer.
The rights-by-design principles
The authors have defined the 11 principles of children’s rights-by-design (chart and link to the left) and matched each with tools for baking them into products and services. Their guide is focused on designers, developers, managers, UX researchers and others in the UK, but it provides needed definition and resources for practitioners and policymakers everywhere.
“Digital technologies are part of the infrastructure of children’s daily lives – they are no longer optional for children but indeed crucial to their development and prospects,” write the guide’s authors, Drs. Livingstone and Kruakae Pothong. The problem is, digital spaces are “proprietary, and business models are based on wide and deep data collection to monetize [children’s] attention and identities,” they continue, and, what’s more, children’s own experiences and views have been largely absent from mix, even as their attention and data are commoditized.
You’ll see from the principles chart that designing for their rights is not only about child online safety. Safety-by-design is essential but addresses only young people’s protection rights. The other two categories complete the Convention’s perfectly balanced framework for youth wellbeing in all the overlapping aspects of their lives – physical, social-emotional, psychological, cognitive and digital – a balance needed because of all the overlap. The authors modeled the participation rights part by consulting with 143 children aged 7-14 in workshops across the UK last summer. Their aim was to be sure the participants understood their rights and got a chance to reflect on them out loud, where digital products are concerned – so that the researchers could capture the “design features and functionalities that children expect to see” in their apps, services and devices.
Operationalizing children’s best interests
Knowing that policy and lawmaking need precise wording and definition, one question I had was about Principle No. 2: the term “best interests of the child,” which appears in Articles 3, 9, 18, 20 and 21 in the Convention. I wondered how companies might operationalize what the authors themselves acknowledged has caused some confusion – “how to embed abstract human rights in concrete development processes and … manage competing priorities [in the face of] commercial drivers.”
In researching that question, I found US as well as European and international sources. Definitions from sources serving US legal and social services professionals make it clear that consulting with children is essential. “The best interests of the child means that any situation should be looked at from the child’s own perspective, seeking to take the child’s views into consideration, and with the objective of ensuring that his/her rights are respected” was the first part of a definition at LawInsider.com. FindLaw.com calls the principle a standard that involves factors such as the wishes, happiness, security, mental health and emotional development of the child – factors courts need to take into consideration when making decisions on child welfare. That is the focus, too, of a resource for courts and child welfare workers at ChildWelfare.gov from the US Department of Health and Human Services, offering “guiding principles,” “factors” and “other considerations.”
The very first sentence of Principle No. 2’s definition is from the UNCRC itself: “Designing for children’s best interests means giving at least equal consideration to children’s wellbeing, growth, development and agency as to businesses’ interests.” That’s an excellent baseline. Well into the CRC’s second decade, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees found that “limited guidance [was] available on how to operationalize the best interests principle,” so it created guidelines here. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors the Convention’s implementation around the world, writes that the best-interests principle is closely linked to others in the Convention, such as children’s rights of non-discrimination and life, survival and development and the right to be heard.
What is not particularly helpful to the industry, so far, is that the principle, the Committee writes, “is complex and its content must be determined on a case-by-case basis,” so “the concept … is flexible and adaptable” because it’s “through the interpretation and implementation of article 3, paragraph 1, in line with the other provisions of the Convention, that the legislator, judge, administrative, social or educational authority will be able to clarify the concept and make concrete use thereof.”
Unavoidable and urgent
What is not in question, though – for Internet companies as well as all parties in both private and public sectors – is that we won’t get there without honoring children and teens’ right to be heard.
People will say that all this will take time, but it’s urgent as laws are being passed. The tools are here and the pressure is on for the industry to work together with youth to uphold “nothing about us without us” for young people. I hope US lawmakers at state and federal levels will work with youth rather than tokenize young people they hand-pick and – just as important – work with industry, not in an adversarial relationship with it, in developing legislation that is actually in the best interests of youth based on youth’s input.
- The “three P’s”: It was in 2014 that I first learned about the three categories of children’s rights in the Convention – rights of participation, provision and protection – and realized this was the ideal framework for their digital rights as well (here is that blog post about a paper by Profs. Sonia Livingstone and Brian O’Neill). Then in 2017, Livingstone and Prof. Amanda Third in Sydney, co-authored and ‘edited a special issue of New Media & Society on “Children and Young People’s Rights in the Digital Age,” further strengthening the framework by arguing for conscious upholding of children’s rights in balance, writing for example that “over and again, efforts to protect them unthinkingly curtail their participation rights in ways that they themselves are unable to contest.”
- So we’re seeing progress in prioritizing positive, remedial and restorative approaches to youth wellbeing over punitive or purely legalistic approach. Just a few examples (see also “the ‘three P’s'” above) are the safety-by-design tools for start-ups and established Internet companies which Australia’s eSafety Commissioner’s Office launched in 2018, to General Comment 25, the 2021 digital-age update to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to children’s rights-by-design….
- For Internet industry people, this is the best: a super professionals-friendly version of “Child Rights by Design,” while the full report from the Digital Futures Commission can be found here: “Child Rights by Design: Guidance for Innovators of Digital Products and Services Used by Children“
- “Children could not be clearer that they long for a child rights-respecting digital world,” write the researchers who conducted the workshops for consulted with children 7-14 on how to design for their rights. They “expect the digital world to put their best interests at least on par with business interests.”
- All the links to the work of the Digital Futures Commission are here, from the “Playful by Design” report to a blueprint for ed tech’s handling of children’s data to a paper on the minefield of standards and regulations industry faces and how it’s doing
- Children’s own views on wellbeing: Global study
- About youth rights’ digital upgrade in 2021
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