Children’s rights in the digital environment: Moving from theory to practice

Children and young people are increasingly using technologies to share their views, engage with others, participate and search for information online on a daily basis. Undoubtedly, the digital revolution provides many opportunities for child empowerment, participation and expression, but it also raises concerns on how they can exercise their rights in the digital environment.

Date 2021-06-30 Author Section policy, research Audience research, policy and decision makers

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (“CRC Committee”) has recently adopted General Comment No. 25 to adapt it to a new context, as children’s rights should be addressed and considered equally in the digital environment. More specifically, it claims that children should be at the core of the consultation process of decision-making and development of laws and policies, as well as digital products. Aside from the legal right, there are many other compelling reasons to involve children in decision making. Allowing children to voice their opinions could strengthen representative democracy. It also leads to better decision making, increased accountability and it may serve to promote children’s protection.

Dr Valerie Verdoodt, a postdoctoral fellow in law at the London School of Economics and an affiliate fellow at the Law and Technology research group at Ghent University, has recently produced a best-practice guide in the framework of the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) project: Children’s rights in the digital environment: Moving from theory to practice. In it, she gives an overview of the existing efforts in child participation and digital policymaking, and formulates best-practice guidelines for engaging children in the conceptualisation and operationalisation of their digital rights. We provide an overview here.

Recent EU and international policy developments regarding children’s rights in the digital world

In March 2021, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) adopted General Comment No. 25 on Children’s Rights in Relation to the Digital Environment. It gives a comprehensive summary on how to act to realise children’s rights in a digital world. The key points of this General Comment include that children should also participate in decision-making processes that might impact their rights in the digital environment. In addition, it stresses the importance of research in this area and encourages regular monitoring of the impact of the digital environment on children’s lives. 

Previously, in July 2018, the Council of Europe (“CoE”) released a Recommendation on Guidelines to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of the child in the digital environment. The document aims to assist the Member States of the CoE in adopting a comprehensive, strategic, rights-based approach by establishing the following guidelines:

  • States must respect, protect and fulfil the right of the child to privacy and data protection.
  • Children should be informed about their rights in a child-friendly way.
  • States and other stakeholders should actively engage children to participate in a meaningful way.
  • States should ensure that educators, parents, the child’s peers, and industries that gather personal data, are aware of and respect the child’s right to privacy and data protection.

More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing challenges and inequalities and created new ones with regards to the rights and wellbeing of children and young people. In response to these difficulties, the EU has developed a new Strategy on the rights of the child which provides a clear framework for action by the EU and the Member States. The strategy was developed together with children and aims to strengthen child participation in decision-making processes at the EU, national, regional and local levels.

Another recent initiative proposed by the European Commission is to create a Digital Compass, containing a vision, targets and avenues for a successful digital transformation of Europe by 2030.  As part of this, the EU will develop a comprehensive set of digital principles for all citizens by the end of 2021. Embedded within this initiative – and the current consultation process to shape its development - is the recognition that it is crucial that digital technologies and services respect and enable children to realise their rights. 

How to ensure meaningful child and youth participation in theory and practice

Children’s right to be heard in Article 12 CRC

According to Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the right of children to be heard and participate is not only a right in itself, but also one of the four guiding principles of the children’s rights framework. This general principle includes the following guidelines:

It is crucial to note that, in this model, children do not have the definitive say in the decision-making process; adults remain responsible for the outcome, while being informed and influenced by their views.

Existing models/benchmarks for meaningful participation

According to Lundy’s Model of Participation, by Laura Lundy, Professor of international children's rights at the School of Education at the Queen's University of Belfast, the successful implementation of Article 12 CRC requires that the implementation of four interrelated features is envisaged. Lundy examines these elements in four chronological steps in the realisation of the right to participation:

  1. Space. Children are given safe child-friendly and age-appropriate physical and emotional environments to express their views. 
  2. Voice. Children are provided with the information they need to be able to shape a view, and are informed on a variety of options to decide how they want to express or not to express themselves.
  3. Audience. Children can reach the right audience, their views and recommendations and communicated and heard.
  4. Influence. Сhildren’s views are taken seriously and acted upon as appropriate, and the feedback is provided.

Chilren's Right for participation: Planning Checklist based on Lundy's Model                           Planning checklist for participation based on the Lundy Model

In order to define meaningful and effective child participation, it is essential to examine a rights-based approach more thoroughly.  Within this model, age is not perceived as an obstacle to participation. Young people should feel free to express their views, using both verbal and non-verbal-verbal forms of communication. However, the weight and impact of these views align with the age and level of maturity. In relation to this approach, the CRC Committee proposes nine basic quality requirements that are to be acknowledged while exercising children’s rights in consultations or research projects:

  • Transparent and informative. It is crucial to ensure that children possess transparent and explicit information on the ways they can exercise their rights, as well as sufficient understanding on the matter. 
  • Voluntary. Children should be informed that their participation is not a duty, and they are free to terminate their involvement in the consultation process, without feeling obliged or pressured.  
  • Respectful. A vital requirement to ensure a smooth consultation process is to embrace children’s ideas and treat them with respect, as well as promote respectful attitudes towards all participants.
  • Relevant. Children are requested to address and reflect on those issues that they define as relevant to their life experience, knowledge and skills.  
  • Child-friendly. It is necessary to consider children’s capacities, age groups, and timelines in order to adjust the working methods to the children’s needs. 
  • Inclusive. The consultation process should be thoroughly inclusive and equal, as well as responsive to challenges that might occur. 
  • Supported by training. In order to support children throughout the process and provide them with efficient guidance, adult facilitators of consultations or participatory research need preparation, skills and support.
  • Safe and sensitive to risk. Adults should establish a safe environment, for children not to feel vulnerable, or be exposed to violence, exploitation, and other negative outcomes.  
  • Accountable. Children are provided with feedback on how their views were considered and acted upon, and how they can potentially continue following-up on those processes.

Among various approaches to addressing children’s participation, UNICEF gives special attention to adolescents within its Conceptual Framework for Measuring Outcomes of Adolescent Participation.

  • Consultative participation mode allows adolescents to contribute to developing legislation, policy or services through consultation by participating in online surveys, or outreach programmes. 
  • Collaborative participation offers adolescents an opportunity to collaborate with adults and work together on joint decisions.
  • Adolescent-led participation is led by adolescents and provides them with a safe and comfortable environment to initiate their own agenda. Adolescents can use social media as a tool to participate in the digital environment with minimal or no supervision from adults. 

In line with UNICEF's conceptual framework, the definition of meaningful adolescent participation is measured by four elements: sense of self-worth; experience of being listened to and taken seriously; making decisions; and civic/public engagement.

A practical tool developed by the Council of Europe aimed at supporting professionals in implementing Article 12 CRC, is Listen-Act-Change – Council of Europe Handbook. The key objective of the handbook is to emphasise a rolling process that encourages adults and children to work together at every level and involves repeated cycles of planning: connecting with children; identifying issues; investigating children’s views; taking action; follow-up actions; reflection; evaluation; and starting the process again.

Recent experiences in an internet policy development context (practical)

In order to mainstream child participation in practice, several consultations with children and young people have been already conducted in recent years. One of these practical examples is UNICEF’s 2017 State of the World’s Children report aimed at identifying the positive and negative impact of technology on children. The report relied on both consultative and collaborative participation of children. The consultation with children was conducted by reaching out to 63,000 respondents worldwide aged between 13 and 24. The survey addressed four questions to help define what children like or dislike the most about using the internet. In addition, a collaborative approach was used and, more specifically, workshops were organised where participants engaged in several activities such as creative exercises, scenario-based exercises, group discussions, and surveys. 

The contribution of children and young people to the 2017 report was very valuable and helped to identify several outcomes, that would not have been feasible without their participation:

  1. A comprehensive summary on positive and negative elements of the use of technology was achieved and can be applied to further research, policy and practice. 
  2. The researchers suggest engaging children and experts at the national level in the process of analysing and interpreting data. 
  3. Moving forward, the survey can be used as an efficient tool to encourage children to start thinking about the topic, and not only for the collection of data. 
  4. The report suggests changing the approach of consultations to more individualised ones. More specifically, this can help children to focus more on their personal concerns and worries, rather than the ‘risks’ they might encounter in the digital environment. 

A second report that markedly demonstrates children’s contribution to internet policy is the Council of Europe report on child consultations: It’s Our World: Children’s views on how to protect their rights in the digital environment. This document focuses on the implementation of exact steps to be taken to facilitate direct and systematic child participation by applying a rights-based approach. Within this initiative, children were consulted in small groups by an adult facilitator and were requested to give their views on their rights and digital environment, as well as work collaboratively to share their ideas with ‘policy makers in Strasbourg’.

Analysing the process of the consultation, several trends have been observed. For instance, children and young people from diverse backgrounds expressed similar views, recommendations, and risks such as cyberbullying, online grooming, and hate speech. Also, most children had trouble defining a clear line between reality and the online world and expressed their concern on the lack of digital literacy in the state curriculum.

Moving forward, several outcomes from this initiative can be added to the best-practice guidelines:

  1. Real scenarios and real actors encourage child participation and increase empowerment. It provides children with the idea that they can make a difference and be heard by real policy makers.
  2. It is important to adjust topics and activities implemented in the consultation to ensure an inclusive environment. 
  3. A focus on addressing the child rights framework more generally rather than only child participation is seen as an efficient way to interpret children’s views. 
  4. Having a variety of ways through which children can communicate their ideas is essential.

Another report has been prepared under General Comment No.25 (cf.section 1.1), and has reached 709 children from all over the world during the consultation process. The consultation was structured as face-to-face workshops where children could participate in various activities such as discussions, scenario-based activities, and creative writing. The key element of this approach is to get an understanding of how digital technology impacts their rights and what can be done to protect them by enabling children to share their insights. During this consultation, the researchers reported fascinating facts about what children consider opportunities and risks for the realisation of their rights, and also the way they envision roles for different factors involved. It was also observed throughout the research that children are very opinionated and can stand by their views with a clear and structured explanation about what their requirements are and how they want to participate.
The upcoming EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child and the European Child Guarantee (cf. section 1.3) touches upon the matter of children’s right in the digital context. This section is based on the collaborative approach of the consultation and aims to address the nine basic requirements of meaningful, safe and ethical child participation through conducting an online survey and organising focus group discussions face-to-face and online. As a result of this consultation, it has been concluded that the vast majority of respondents strive for having a greater say in this matter and wish to participate more. 

Key lessons learned from this initiative include:

  • It is important to explore ways of reaching out to more vulnerable groups, considering also their absence or limited access to the internet, for example. 
  • Reaching out to children and gathering the views of young people remains challenging and requires further development. 

The report, written by the Council of Europe on children with disabilities in the digital environment, provides an overview of how children with disabilities experience their rights in an online environment, what are their barriers to using ICT, what risks they encounter, and what support they need. 

The methodology of this consultation offers capacity building and participatory exercises which helped children to understand the experiences beyond their own. Interestingly, children with disabilities expressed similar views of their digital lives to children with no disabilities. It was also noted that they perceive the digital environment as an enabler or ‘equaliser’, as it provides them with a variety of features that previously were not accessible to them. 
A number of interesting insights from this approach can contribute significantly to the best-practice guidelines:

  1. Giving children an opportunity to act as co-researchers in the consultation process is a great tool to enable meaningful participation. 
  2. It is crucial to embrace diversity across and within different types of disabilities, and adjust activities, formats and support accordingly. 

As has been illustrated, the last few years have been marked by extensive research and active work towards raising awareness about children’s rights in the digital environment, as well as taking firm steps to promote and embrace meaningful children participation. However, a significant percentage of EU Member States still do not have systematic processes for child participation in place, and therefore need to develop it.

Further information on policy developments on children participation is available in a best-practice guideline titled Children’s rights in the digital environment: Moving from theory to practice, including more extensive descriptions of consultation activities.

Another recent initiative proposed by the European Commission is to create a Digital Decade, underpinned by a Digital Compass containing a vision, targets and avenues for a successful digital transformation of Europe by 2030. As part of this, the EU will develop a comprehensive set of digital principles for all citizens by the end of 2021. Embedded within this initiative – and the current consultation process to shape its development - is the recognition that it is crucial that digital technologies and services respect and enable children to realise their rights. We'll also be working with other stakeholders later in the year – parents, carers and teachers – to make sure that we understand what they need to support children and young people online. Together, this will then help to shape decisions and policies about being online in Europe for the next 10 years, and produce an updated Better Internet for Kids Strategy to drive work forward. Stay tuned to the BIK portal and our Facebook and Twitter profiles over the coming months for more!

Read the full June 2021 edition of the BIK bulletin from which this article is taken.

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