There is so much to celebrate about General Comment 25, which for the first time spells out what digital human rights look like for people worldwide – people under 18, technically, but in many ways for all people. Because this addendum to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is the first binding international document to spell out human rights concerning all things digital.
“It’s a game-changer,” writes Sonia Livingstone, who has led research on youth and digital media around the world since the field’s earliest days and was lead drafter of this General Comment (GC25). “The General Comment will land on the desk of every government in the world. It clarifies what the digital environment means for children’s civil rights and freedoms, their rights to privacy, non-discrimination, protection, education, play and more. It also explains why States and other duty bearers must act and … how they should act,” Dr. Livingstone, a professor at the London School of Economics, adds.
Before we go to some of the reasons for celebration, some basic background for readers new to the world of children’s rights:
What is the CRC? It’s a treaty – a “legally binding international agreement setting out the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of every child [people under 18], regardless of their race, religion or abilities,” according to Save the Children UK (“the world’s very first declaration on child rights was written by Save the Children founder Eglantyne Jebb in 1923”). Its implementation is monitored by the Geneva-based UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. The Convention was adopted by the UN in 1989 and has since been ratified by 196 countries, more than have ratified any other international convention – every country on the planet but the US. What are the signatories bound to? According to the CRC, states that ratify it must “…undertake all appropriate legislative, administrative, and other measures for the implementation of the rights recognized in the present Convention [including child-sensitive remedies to violations] … to the maximum extent of their available resources and, where needed, within the framework of international cooperation,” according to the International Institute for the Rights of the Child.
What is a General Comment? It is an authoritative document that details how the rights laid out in the Convention should be interpreted and implemented by the ratifying countries. GC25 is also an aid in “the development and application of international law,” according to Child Rights Connect, an organization based in Geneva that supports the Committee on the Rights of the Child in developing General Comments and monitoring governments’ (“states parties’”) compliance. “General Comment 25 will now be recognised as an explicit obligation on the part of … signatory countries and for which they are held accountable by the UN,” according to UK-based Doughty Street Chambers, a barrister group that specializes in international law, civil liberties and human rights and includes a children’s rights practice.
Here are some key reasons to celebrate GC25 (please add anything I’ve missed in Comments below):
- Doubles down on youth participation as essential in policymaking concerning their digital activities. “Young people are the experts on their own lived experience,” said Mairead Reid, a Scottish youth consultant to the General Comment drafting committee, speaking on a panel celebrating its adoption. “It’s time to put children’s voices into all the debates and for their voices to be heard,” Professor Livingstone said in a video talk celebrating GC25’s adoption, referring to Article 12 of the CRC. The General Comment models this: the drafting committee held consultations with 709 children in 27 countries on 6 continents, according to the 5Rights Foundation Steering Group for GC25 (see the sidebar below). Three hundred of the youth consultants contributed to “In Our Own Words,” the youth version of GC25.
- Powerful timing. Widespread awareness prefigures change, and children and adults all over the world are thinking more and more about the implications of a datafied planet (in an example from Quartz, “the John Deere combine harvester isn’t just a tractor – it’s a space vehicle, reliant on data collected by spacecraft to track the health of crops, operate efficiently, and even offer maintenance alerts”). And not only that. Algorithms for content moderation, fraud detection, ad targeting, etc., etc., are too, thus the international discussion about AI ethics. As UN Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in 2019, “Real world inequalities are reproduced within algorithms and flow back into the real world. Artificial intelligence systems cannot capture the complexity of human experience and need. Digital systems and artificial intelligence create centers of power, and unregulated centers of power always pose risks – including to human rights.”
- Global thus influential in a new way (cynics can move to the next bullet). People and certainly governments are not used to thinking about global-scale public opinion, but here we are. This is yet another important digital-age experiment: “public opinion” that includes governments as well as publics. National and continent-wide regulation such as COPPA, GDPR and Europe’s proposed Digital Services Act certainly have reach and effect beyond their jurisdictions, but an international treaty signed onto by all but one country adds a different kind of weight on the scale with global corporations. Effects can’t be immediate and certainly much depends on the signatories’ commitment, but the standard has been set and the guidance laid out. It’s a standard that provides clarity and energy to awareness, expectations, policymaking and activism worldwide, even as more and more of us have been and are being born into a global consciousness that simply thinks in planetary-level terms.
- Provides a framework for all that “the digital” represents in our children’s lives – the goodness we want them to draw from it as well as the dangers from which we want them safe. It’s just the perfect framework for online safety, for example, establishing a balance that UN Committee chairperson Luis Ernesto Pedernera Reyna referred to between children’s rights of participation and their rights of protection and making sense of the alphabet soup of terms and subjects we’ve been associating with digital safety and wellbeing for some 20 years – safety, literacy, citizenship, wellbeing, resilience, etc. (see this research on that).
- Balanced in several ways, as expressed by key GC25 developers: “The General Comment tries to steer a course through those old binaries such as children or adults, protection or freedom,” said Livingstone (I would add online or offline and risks or opportunities). And as if to punctuate that, youth consultant Mason Rickard from England said, “the GC tries to move toward a more balanced approach to parenting, something more mutual than controlling.” Chairperson Pedernera spoke to the balance between risks “and the magnificent opportunities [the digital environment] provides for children and adolescents’ voices to be heard.”
- Widening responsibility for upholding rights. Mr. Pedernera said GC25 “transfers responsibility from individuals to institutions, from children and parents to governments and businesses.” Upholding children’s rights cannot be up to children and parents alone, but certainly he didn’t mean a shift entirely away from them – from us. To ensure that “the digital” truly serves children, their voice, participation and responsibility – their agency – must be in the mix. In another recent panel discussion about digital media and youth during the pandemic, moderated by Dr. Livingstone, Dr. Maya Goetz spoke of a study of more than 4,000 youth in 42 countries. Its authors asked them how they control their media use at a time when it can get overwhelming, and some said, “Well, my parents control it and tell me what to watch”; others said, “I have to take care of myself.” The study found that the latter group “had a lot more competency in how to control their media consumption,” said Goetz, head of Germany’s International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television, adding that “especially in these times, they need to know how to control media usage themselves.” In the same video, UK-based Chilean scholar Patricio Cuevas-Parra mentioned young people in Bangladesh who had no school because of Covid, so they became activist information-sharers, holding webinars on Facebook Live with public figures to help people understand what was going on [with Covid in their country]. “It amazes me how often I go to events where people talk about children but not with them or consulting them,” Dr. Cuevas said. We need to see and work with them as “competent social actors,” he added.
“Now the real work begins,” Dr. Livingstone wrote. But, as she said in this discussion, the work will be much easier if we listen to children and youth and work with them to develop solutions that are relevant and meaningful to them. I mean, fully one-third of all Internet users are under 18!
All these references by researchers to getting children’s input and participation are to Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which 196 governments have agreed to be bound to honor. But even if the United States never ratifies the CRC, what Livingstone wrote holds true here as well. Now with General Comment 25, the Convention is an invaluable tool for young people and all of us who work with them. By detailing all their rights in all three categories – rights of participation, provision and protection – it provides a much-needed framework for learning and teaching online safety, digital and media literacy and digital-age citizenship.
GC25 is also a rock-solid foundation for young people’s activism – especially if we could teach them their rights, under the Convention as well as our own Constitution. I hope its adoption will become a way in to formal instruction not only in their digital rights but their human rights in general. But maybe it’s happening informally. Certainly their work on climate change and social justice is connecting them with young activists in other countries who are aware of their rights online as well as offline.
SIDEBAR: Young people’s views on their digital rights
Part of General Comment 25’s development process was workshops with 709 people aged 9-22 in 27 countries to get their views on their digital rights. The 69 three-to-five-hour, in-person workshops were held in 19 languages, 15 of the 69 in Arabic and 12 in English, 52% of the youth participants identifying as female, 40% as male and 8% choosing not to specify their gender, according to this short, very accessible report: “Our rights in a digital world: A snapshot of children’s views from around the world,” by Prof. Amanda Third and Lilly Moody of the Young and Resilient Research Centre at Western Sydney University for the GC25 Steering Group coordinated by London-based 5Rights Foundation (the full report from Third, et al, is coming soon). Here are some highlights from the eight themes that emerged, presented in order of importance to the 709 young people consulted:
- Internet access as a human right. Access was hands down the most-voiced one, many young people saying they view it as a human right. The Covid pandemic has only made things worse for youth without the Internet. The young people spoke to different aspects of accessibility: affordability (citing lack of funds for connectivity or devices, power outages, the danger of reaching cybercafes with no access at home, etc.); accessibility for those with disabilities; the fact that access is gendered in many parts of the world “particularly in low-income countries”; and accessibility in terms of language (lack of content in their own languages). “Affordable access is one of the most profound needs for children,” said Baroness Kidron of the 5Rights Foundation.
- Information. Two important concerns surfaced: 1) that as excited as they are about being able to tap into information all over the world, they’re also very aware that it isn’t always trustworthy (“We can easily access and get information, but it’s hard to know whether the information is valid or not,” said a 14-year-old girl in Indonesia”); and 2) they struggle with the complex language of apps’ and services’ Terms of Service (“Generally it is a gigantic riddle what happens to our data,” said a 16-year-old in Germany, “as it is hidden in complex data protection agreements and legal texts. I would like to obtain clarity about what really happens with my data”).
- Expression, Identity & Culture, or how the Internet can both help and hurt: “Building confidence, overcoming shyness, airing views and finding validation are some of the ways children said the online world empowered them,” according to the researchers. “Children said it allowed them to reach a wider – even international – audience. It also offered some psychological benefits…. But [they also] find that the hostility and exposure that can characterise the digital environment is inhibiting.”
- Leisure & Play: Tension over online activities is felt in people and households worldwide, and some young people are well aware of our (adults’) tech determinism. A Brazilian girl challenged it: “I think people stopped playing in the street not only because the internet came into being, but because the country and the cities got more violent as well. It may be interesting to evaluate not only the internet, but the environment in which people who use the internet most often are,” she said. “Certainly, in the countryside, which is safer, teenagers and children use the internet less than we do in the capital.”
- Privacy: The researchers found that many children are clued into issues of online privacy, and those who identified it as a significant right in the digital environment said it is under threat due to digital technologies.” They tend to trust government more than businesses where their data is concerned, but not completely, and privacy at home is an issue too: “Children are adamant that the privacy they crave should include privacy from parents,” the authors report.
- Role of parents. The digital hasn’t changed much about the parent-child relationship: “Children want parental oversight to mitigate a range of harms, from neglecting schoolwork to more serious harms,” the authors report, but children also feel that oversight is “hampered by a lack of knowledge and skills.” A 16-year-old girl in Kenya said, “I want you to talk to our parents on our behalf and inform them that they should have trust in us whenever we are using technology.”
- Protection: Children clearly want to be safe online. Their concerns include grooming and kidnapping (“We should not show our location. Anyone can track you. We should not trust anyone on the internet. We should not add strangers on the internet,” a child in Pakistan said). But they also seem to be aware of the more common social-emotional risks: “Internet violence is a type of psychological violence via messages, social media etc.,” said a 13-year-old girl in Croatia. “It is a lot worse than physical violence, because it leaves much deeper scars.”
- Health. This report suggests that young people all over the world are well aware of both the negatives and the positives of being online. They have internalized well-publicized concerns about negative media effects: “Spending too much time on the internet causes people to not play, not socialize with parents and friends, and causes lack of sleep and mental illness,” a 13-year-old Brazilian girl told the researchers. On the other hand, “many children said access to digital technology helps them maintain their health, as they can seek information online, particularly about taboo subjects that they are uncomfortable discussing with parents and adults,” the authors write. Based on their report, children’s views align well with the latest research in the US on “Social Media and Youth Wellbeing,” so parents and educators might want to sync up with that too.
The researchers conclude that “children want – and need – to be a part of the digital world; not just as users … but as creators, decision-makers and citizens, both now and in the future.” Thankfully, some of the wishes and needs expressed here will just come with time, as children become parents, teachers, tech workers and policymakers themselves. But how wonderful would it be if we actually helped them right now? If we could fear, block and monitor their tech use less and mentor them more? If we could set household, school, corporate and government policy that balances their participation and protection rights and – where protection is concerned – focused as much on their internal safeguards, which will protect them for a lifetime, as on external ones?
- General Comment 25’s full text can be downloaded here, and its Explanatory Notes, with “tangible, real-world examples which illuminate [its] provisions” here.
- Child Rights Connect on the significance of General Comments
- “Children and young people’s participation is necessary for effective and respectful protection, as required by the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child” in “Children’s rights to participation and protection in international development and humanitarian interventions: nurturing a dialogue” in the International Journal on Human Rights, 2017
- “#CovidUnder19” A project led by Queen’s University Belfast and the NGO Terre des Hommes “to meaningfully involve children in responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.” The researchers surveyed 26,258 youth ages 8-17 in 137 countries. Here’s their report: “Children’s Rights during Coronavirus: Children’s Views and Experiences.”
- “Why won’t the US ratify the UN’s child rights treaty?” in the Washington Post in 2014, marking the 25th anniversary of the UNCRC
- Historical notes: US national-level efforts to make digital tech and media kid-friendly have not met with a lot of success, whether imposed by government or offered by industry. A few examples just since I started covering kids + digital in 1999: You might remember the V-chip fail (see Popular Mechanics or Techdirt), all the safe “e-playgrounds,” or “walled gardens,” such as YOW and JuniorNet, tried in the late ‘90s and early aughts, and the dot-kids domain created via federal law (see this newsletter in 2004 and this in 2005) and other historical attempts to make new technologies and media environments kid-friendly. Can you see how this General Comment is different, as outlined above?
- The latest US research on youth digital wellbeing: “Social Media and Youth Wellbeing: What We Know and Where We Could Go,” from the Connected Learning Alliance based in Irvine, Calif.
- What we have from the UN on adults’ digital rights so far is a report on “The Right to Privacy in the Digital Age” (2018) from the High Commissioner on Human Rights. Here‘s the OHCHR’s announcement of GC25’s adoption.
- Tools to help the tech industry uphold children’s rights: the Safety by Design principles and tools from of Australia’s eSafety Commissioner’s Office and the UK’s Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham on age-appropriate design (and the ICO’s standards at a glance.
- Insights from young activists on using the Internet: “Young artists & activists wrapping 2020 in light“; how a young activist taking digital citizenship to the next level; “5 young activists in 4 countries on life, work & social media: Part 1“; and “5 young activists in 4 countries, Part 2: The social media crucible“
- About “Parenting in a Digital Age”: Sonia Livingstone’s 2019 TED Talk and my review of her recent book, with Alicia Blum-Ross, PhD, on the subject
- Past posts here at NFN: “Safer Internet Day 2021: Ground youth safety & rights in dignity” and, pre-Covid, “Four resolutions for Internet safety 2020”; and “Digital youth: Honor ALL their rights” (2019) and “A task force report & a student bill of rights” (2014)