Sonia Livingstone: Digital Media and Children’s Rights

February 2015

This blog post was originally published by the LSE Media Policy Project Blog, available here.

It was adapted from a lecture given by Sonia Livingstone at the Palais des Nations, Geneva, on 12 September 2014, at a United Nations Day of General Discussion of the Committee on the Rights of the Child.Sonia-Livingston

Fast-developing ICTs are reshaping children’s lives for better and for worse – already in high-income countries, fast expanding in middle-income countries, and increasingly also in low-income countries. More and more children, families and communities rely on technologies as part of the taken-for-granted infrastructure of everyday life. Almost every aspect of children’s lives has an online dimension, whether through their direct engagement with ICT or through the institutional management of contents or services that affect the conditions of children’s lives. Indeed, it is becoming hard to draw the line between offline and online.

As governments promote ICT so that businesses can compete in the global economy, they are formulating policies that rarely consider children’s needs explicitly. When talking about the market or the population, for instance, they tend to assume a competent adult ‘user’ who just needs access, maybe a little skills training. Children’s needs tend to be ignored or left to parents or considered undemanding because children are supposedly ‘digital natives’, already more expert than adults. Meanwhile the media spread panics about pornography and paedophiles, companies seeking new ways to profit from the child market, and the children’s workforce has plenty of other problems to worry about.

ITU figures show that some 3 in 4 households the global North have internet access, compared with less than 1 in 4 in the global South. But in the global South there is a steady increase. Since these countries dwarf the developed countries in terms of population, with between one third and a half of those populations being children, we are at a tipping point in the growth of the online child population. So it’s timely to consider children’s rights in the digital age. And to do so with a global lens.

As the global South reaches a tipping point, it’s tempting to generalise what we know from the North to the South

Most of the available evidence about the contexts and consequences of children’s internet use comes from the global North. But the step change in where children go online raises new questions. Indeed the meaning of internet use is changing – (i) internet access is increasingly mobile first rather than desktop or workplace first, (ii) in many countries access is more community-based (e.g. via cybercafés or various workarounds to gain access) than based at home or school (both more common in the West); (iii) moreover, schools and parents cannot simply be relied upon to ensure children’s rights online because many children lack one or both. (iv) internet access and content is increasingly commercialised (often with little local, public or own-language provision), (v) internet use increasingly occurs in contexts of very low or sometimes-punitive regulation and as-yet insufficient mediation by bodies charged with child welfare or well-being, and (vi) the global North’s rather muted anxieties about socio-economic, ethnic or gender inequalities and exploitation become much more acute when viewed globally.

UNICEF’s recent review showed that in parts of Asia, the Middle East and Africa we don’t even know how many children access the internet. Nor do we know what children around the world might want from the internet or what they could meaningfully gain from it. Researchers, children’s organisations, industry and governments are all identifying a rising tide of new concerns and promised solutions from around the world. Addressing these challenges requires a truly global process of dialogue and deliberation, for we cannot simply extend what we know of the global North to the global South – neither in terms of evidence and knowledge nor of policy and practice.

Which rights are at stake and whose responsibility are they?

Consider the key articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) relevant to children’s rights in the digital age. Of course the CRC was formulated in the pre-digital era – but these rights remain as vital as ever.

In establishing basic standards that apply without discrimination to all children worldwide, the CRC is addressed to governments. Yet it is characteristic of globalisation in the twenty-first century that the power of national governments is being dispersed upwards to transnational organisations and global companies and, also, downwards to local organisations – as a result of de-regulation, commercialisation and political change. So now there are many more actors charged – more or less convincingly – with the responsibility to implement children’s rights in the digital age.

These actors face an array of problems. (i) It is often said that existing legislation applies equally to the online domain, but in practice this can be difficult to implement and enforce. (ii) Currently there are many governance structures, with effort to develop international regulatory bodies and forms of internet governance proving somewhat fragile and uneven. (iii) Also of concern is that most efforts focus on protection, arguably at the expense of participation, and some countries have used the cover of child protection as a justification for blocking or monitoring public internet access. (iv) The fast-changing, highly complex and transnational nature of socio-technological infrastructures also challenges policy makers. (v) It is also problematic that the internet is largely blind to age, treating children and adults equivalently and so rarely treating children according to their ‘evolving capacities,’ as specified in CRC Articles 5 and 14.

The articles of the CRC are commonly organised by the categories of protection, provision and participation, because this helps us to answer the question: why these rights? Broadly, what’s being emphasised is the right to protection from harm, the right to provision to meet needs, and the right to participation as an agent, some would say citizen. Our task, then, is to identify where, when and how the internet reconfigures the conditions of harm, need and agency. We can identify many ways in which this seems to be happening, in terms of the various risks and opportunities currently on research, policy and practitioner agendas.

PPT Sonia

I use the notion of reconfiguration advisedly. The internet is not the cause of problems in children’s lives in any simple sense. And nor can it provide solutions in and of itself. The internet is created by people, controlled by people, used by people – and it’s they (we) who can change its consequences for our lives.

But the internet does make a difference – as a set of tools or environments within which we act, a medium through which we engage with the world. That medium has particular qualities – rendering content persistent, replicable and remixable, scalable and searchable – all via decentralised, ubiquitous, interactive, near-instant networked exchanges. But the consequences of its use, both positive and negative, are always experienced by people – material bodies, geographically located.

EU Kids Online

Our submission to this DGD summarised a host of European findings and evidence-based recommendations relevant to children’s rights in the digital age. In my recent report to UNICEF, I documented the rather-sparse evidence from the global South, some confirming what we know from the global North, some raising new issues, and some adding grounds for urgency as problems go unresolved and opportunities are missed.

From these and other sources of knowledge, it is already clear that children’s rights in the digital age are far from realised.[1] How can this situation be improved? Crucially, although children’s rights are universal, what children need, what harms them, and how they can best express their agency – all these depend on the context. Thus how children engage with digital media and what consequences this has varies considerably around the world. So too do the solutions that could enhance their protection, provision and participation – though I and others call for common values by which to judge those solutions (grounded in evidence and children’s experiences, fair and inclusive, transparent and accountable, independently evaluated).

Moving Forward

It is imperative to make all stakeholders thoroughly aware that, today, what happens offline will also be manifest online, that what happens online has consequences offline, and that we are witnessing a reconfiguring of risks and opportunities of children’s lives.

Children’s rights in the digital age are presently undermined by a mix of innocence, ignorance and worse. Can we find ways to embed the importance of ‘the digital’ into the policies and practices of the many organisations concerned with children’s well-being? Can we find ways to embed the importance of children’s rights into the policies and practices of the many organisations concerned with the digital?

What options are open to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child? To appoint a special rapporteur? Produce a General Comment on children’s rights in the digital age? Do we want a trusted, efficient global governance body charged with ensuring the delivery of children’s rights? At the least, I hope this Day of General Discussion will stimulate further consultation, deliberation and evidence-gathering to guide governments and governance processes around the world.


[1]For example, although children’s digital access and literacy is growing apace, many features of the digital environment remain substantially underused even by well-resourced children, and educational benefits are proving elusive. The untapped opportunities are barely addressed in lower income countries or among socially marginalised or disadvantaged children everywhere. Furthermore, there are grounds for concern that the internet is becoming part of – even compounding – pre-existing harmful offline experiences such as sexual exploitation, bullying or exposure to pornography. But not all risks result in harm, and research also suggests that use of ICTs can help children and communities cope with the problems they encounter. Perhaps most challenging is the potential for conflict between the protection, provision and participation rights. Our research finds that online opportunities and risks are positively linked, so that enhancing opportunities is likely to increase risks and controlling risks can reduce opportunities. It also finds that children may draw the line between opportunities and risks differently from the adults that worry about them.