In March 2021, the European Commission published:
- 2030 Digital Compass: the European way for the Digital Decade, which presents a vision, targets and avenues for a successful digital transformation of Europe by 2030.  “EU rights and values are at the heart of the EU's human centred way on digital. They should be fully reflected in the online space as they are in the real world. This is why the Commission proposes to develop a framework of digital principles, such as access to high-quality connectivity, to sufficient digital skills, to public services, to fair and non-discriminatory online services – and more generally, to ensure that the same rights that apply offline can be fully exercised online”.
- The EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child to better protect all children, to help them fulfil their rights and to place them right at the centre of EU policy making.  This includes a commitment to make sure European children and young people continue to be empowered and protected online.
Against this background, European Schoolnet consulted – from May to October 2021, on behalf of the European Commission, as part of the www.betterinternetforkids.eu initiative – children, young people, parents, carers and educators from across (and beyond) the European Union on the priorities they see to promote, protect, respect and fulfil children’s rights in a digital world. What follows here is an Executive Summary of the resulting report. The full report consultation report will be published just ahead of the 2021 edition of the Safer Internet Forum (SIF), at a pre-event on the evening of Tuesday, 5 October 2021.
This year’s edition of the Safer Internet Forum has been specifically organised with the purpose of giving the opportunity to a wider range of public and private stakeholders – including children and young people – to draw this consultation process to a close.
Results will contribute to the development of a set of digital principles for an interinstitutional declaration between the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council to be published in late 2021, and to the new Better Internet for Kids (BIK) Strategy to be adopted in 2022.
- European Schoolnet organised, from March to August 2021, the #DigitalDecade4YOUth consultation with support from the Insafe network of European Safer Internet Centres and a wider range of European online safety and child rights organisations. Over 70 consultation sessions were carried out, following recent guidance and experience on children’s rights to be heard in the digital age. As such, the voices of more than 750 children and young people across Europe were heard in a structured and systematic way, setting a high standard on how to ensure meaningful child and youth participation in digital policy making.
- As part of a Better Internet for Kids MOOC (massive open online course) for teachers in April and May 2021, with a focus on Digital literacy and online safety: How the pandemic tested our skills,  over 300 European teachers and educators were consulted on a similar range of questions.
- In addition, more than 500 EU citizens – including parents and carers, teachers and educators, and wider stakeholders – have responded to an online campaign survey to date, based on the questions which children and young people were consulted on so that we can compare perspectives. This work is ongoing at the time of publication of this report and hence its findings are not referenced here.
This #DigitalDecade4YOUth consultation report underlines, once more, the importance of children’s right to be heard in any decision-making process that affects them, as enshrined in Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
Our findings provide strong support for the need to more systematically embed the best interests of children and young people into the EU’s digital ambitions for 2030 to ensure that the rights of children and young people which apply offline can also be fully exercised online.
One of the principles proposed in in the European Commission’s 2030 Digital Compass Communication  is Protecting and empowering children and young people in the online space. In subsequent policy work , this has been specified as follows:
- The online environment should foster children’s and young people’s well-being and their participation as digital citizens.
- Children and young people should be equipped with digital literacy and the necessary skills and competences to navigate safely and responsibly online from an early age and throughout their education and training.
- Every child should be protected from harmful and illegal content, including from child sexual abuse and exploitation.
It is clear from the consultation sessions that children and young people have strong and specific opinions about the activities they like to do in the digital environment, what they find important, and what concerns they have. In addition, they have a clear vision about which issues need to be tackled as a priority and were able to form original and specific guidance and recommendations for various actors including, but not limited to, policy makers and digital operators, on how this should be done in practice.
As such, this report has the potential to help articulate what the European way for the digital society could entail in more concrete terms, building upon the needs, challenges and opportunities children, young people, teachers and educators see in the context of digitalisation.
The views and experiences of children and young people
The internet plays a crucial role in almost every aspect of children’s and young people’s lives. It allows them to stay connected with friends and family, it offers various opportunities for entertainment and to escape boredom, and presents an important source of information and learning. The consultation shows that, overall, children and young people have a good understanding of both the positive and negative aspects of the internet. They realise that the digital world – much like the offline world – will never be entirely safe.
When asked to voice their main concerns about the digital realm, most of the groups mentioned cyberbullying, closely followed by hateful and harmful content. They also consider fake news and disinformation to be an important threat, not only for minors, but perhaps even more so for older people. Privacy and data protection equally featured high on our respondents’ risk list.
Across the different consultation groups, general concerns were raised about the lack of awareness among internet users (including not only children and young people, but also parents and other adults) about online risks and potential mitigation measures. Several consultation groups highlighted their concern specifically for younger children, who may be less experienced and more vulnerable. The respondents agreed that the environment a person lives in is very important, with an essential role to be played by parents.
There seems to be widespread agreement that the digital world provides a wealth of opportunities. Yet, respondents consider it not sufficiently inclusive and accessible for children and young people with disabilities. Explicit concerns were also raised about hateful and violent content online targeting children and young people in vulnerable and marginalised situations, with “being different” in any possible way seen as a risk factor often leading to harassment and rejection.
Key recommendations for policy makers and digital operators
The solutions and recommendations provided by children and young people demonstrate a holistic view on the responsibility for safeguarding and empowering them in the digital environment. To make the internet a better place, all relevant actors should take up their respective role and collaborate where possible.
It is significant to note that, in terms of the changes children and young people really want to see, participants largely decided to focus on the key online risks they had previously identified as part of the consultation exercise.
- Participants found inappropriate content to be a priority for change because it is affecting society as a whole, desensitising citizens to hateful messages and behaviours.
- Cyberbullying was also seen as a priority for policy makers, because it has an impact on children’s and young people’s behaviour and self-esteem, ultimately leading to problems in all areas of life. Some participants felt that cyberbullying presents a massive challenge, particularly for younger children.
- Aside from these specific issues, some more overarching problems can be extracted from the discussions. According to participants, the root cause of many of the online risks and challenges lies in a lack of awareness and media literacy among internet users, the possibility to remain anonymous in the digital environment, and public attitudes online which should be changed towards decent communication and behaviour.
In response to this, participants insisted that different actors have to take up their share of responsibility, depending on the specific context and issue at stake:
- As a general remark, policymakers should aim towards harmonisation at the EU level, as this could result in a better protection of minors from online risks and harmful media within the entire EU. They could think about introducing uniform age limits and improving monitoring at EU level.
- The message most often heard in the consultation sessions was the need for improved media literacy and online safety education for children and young people in schools, and that policy makers should make this happen. The participants believed that without knowing how to correctly use online tools, they are more vulnerable to risks and threats. The metaphor was used of being handed a complex tool without an instruction manual. Some respondents emphasised that schools and parents have to take their role more seriously than they do today.
- Aside from more media literacy education, several groups stressed that improved monitoring and enforcement of existing rules in the digital environment is necessary, with stricter penalties for those who misbehave online (such as those who harass, bully, or spread harmful content). Children and young people feel that when they report certain content or behaviour to social media platforms, no actions are effectively taken, which in turn discourages them to report or act against hate speech. They believe that if internet users and social networks do not face any consequences for bad online behaviour, not much will change.
- In addition, children and young people think that EU policy makers should exercise pressure on industry to provide safe and child-appropriate services and platforms. This entails finding ways to ensure that children’s voices are heard, and offering settings and content according to age and category. This could include banning sexual or violent content, or better regulating access to certain content such as gambling, advertisements and spam.
- Last but not least, participants feel that technology can play an important role in making the internet a better place. Here, it was argued that EU policy makers should collaborate with internet companies or create the necessary incentives to ensure that companies, such as social media platforms, continue developing tools which are child-friendly.
The perspectives of European teachers and educators
As one might expect, the European teachers and educators involved in this consultation exercise largely echoed the education needs put forward by children and young people.
They call upon policy makers to substantially invest in national and international programmes which support education and awareness-raising efforts. For teachers, this is primarily about:
- Making sure that media literacy, online safety and digital citizenship are part of the formal curriculum from an early age onwards.
- Ensuring that these topics are properly addressed in teacher training and professional development also.
- More actively reaching out to parents and carers so as to develop a shared understanding of what is going on in children’s and young people’s online lives, in turn making it possible to foster an ongoing whole-school dialogue.
- Taking an evidence-based approach and better assessing the results of existing education efforts.
Secondly, much reference was made (here again) to the need to have proper legal and regulatory frameworks and to make sure these rules are properly enforced and do not only exist on paper. The accountability of industry is something which respondents raised often. They should be forced (or, more positively, encouraged) to develop technological solutions and come up with age-appropriate standards and measures to keep their platforms and services safe.
Of course, this particular group of European teachers and educators do not represent the views of teachers in general as these are teachers who signed up to a Better Internet for Kids MOOC (massive open online course) and therefore are already committed to making a difference in this sphere. In fact, many of them talked about difficulties in getting their own colleagues on board, with reasons cited including that the curriculum is full, there is not sufficient awareness, many teachers lack the required knowledge, skills and confidence and it is difficult to keep up to date with the continuous flow of technological development.
It is noteworthy to add that even this group of open-minded and enthusiastic European teachers and educators had – in comparison with the children and young people we consulted – a rather narrow and protective view of children’s rights in a digital world. For example, while many of our younger respondents talked passionately about online entertainment and gaming as important opportunities for positive and creative participation, teachers primarily framed these activities in relation to concerns about time spent online or minors accessing inappropriate services and content. When asked about protective measures, teachers typically argued that access should be restricted based on age. By contrast, children and young people themselves would rather point to the need for policy makers and industry to prevent negative things from happening in the online spaces they already inhabit, while equally providing more age-appropriate alternatives for them to engage with.
In many ways, these examples illustrate – in very concrete and practical ways – how the rights of children and young people to provision and participation are easily overlooked when minors are not sitting around the table when child online protection is being discussed.
To conclude, respondents of all ages and backgrounds acknowledged that the digital world is complex. In their collective view, it is difficult to say where exactly the responsibility sits because more often than not it is shared. In line with this, we hope the results of this consultation will therefore be an encouragement and source of inspiration for EU policy makers and other actors – including internet companies, parents, and educators – to continue to join forces to make the internet a better place for children and young people!
 Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions 2030 Digital Compass: the European way for the Digital Decade