Children’s rights in a digital world

The digital world is important to many children – they don’t view their life in terms of ‘online’ and ‘offline’; the two are intertwined. Just as there are laws and rights for children offline, there are also laws and rights to help protect them online as well.

Two children holding hands

This module will explore how children’s rights apply in a digital world, relevant laws that can help protect children and safeguard their rights, and what you can do as an educator to support your learners to understand and exercise their rights online.

What are children’s rights?

The rights of all children are laid out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Consisting of 54 Articles, the Convention lays out the civil, political, social, cultural and economic rights that all children (anyone under the age of 18) are entitled to, and the responsibilities of governments and adults to ensure these rights are upheld. All rights are linked, and no right is considered more important than another.

Visuals that says the UN convention on the rights of the child

Among the Articles are four General Principles: 

  1. Non-discrimination (Article 2): The rights of the child apply to every child equally, regardless of race, gender, disability, etc.
  2. Best interests of the child (Article 3): The best interests of the child must always come first in any decisions made that apply to them.
  3. Right to life, survival and development (Article 6): All children have the right to grow up and live in the best way possible. Everyone who plays a role in caring for children (including teachers) must provide environments that are safe.
  4. Right to be heard (Article 12): Children have a right to be actively involved in decisions that affect them, to express their opinions and have these taken into account.

How do children’s rights apply online?

The UNCRC was first enacted in 1990, at a time when the internet and digital services were very much in their infancy. However, in 2021, the UNCRC adopted General Comment 25, a formal recognition that children’s rights apply online in the same way as they do offline.

In our own words: Young people's version of general comment No. 25 from the 5Rights Foundation

While responsibility for upholding these rights lies with you and your school (Article 3 outlines the importance of all who work with children ensuring that a child’s best interests are paramount), it is also the responsibility of local and national governments and online service providers such as social media companies, website operators and gaming platforms.

Specific rights that directly relate to learners’ use and experiences of online technology include:

  • Article 6 – the right to grow up to be healthy.
  • Article 12 – a child’s right to a voice in decisions that affect them.
  • Articles 13 & 17 – the right to information that is honest and understandable.
  • Article 15 – the right to meet with friends and join groups.
  • Article 16 – the right to privacy.
  • Article 19 – the right to be kept safe.
  • Article 28 – the right to learn and attend education.
  • Article 31 – the right to relax and play.
  • Article 34 – the right to protection from sexual abuse.
  • Article 36 – the right to protection from harmful behaviours.
  • Article 39 – the right to help and support in the event of being abused.
  • Additional protocols related to child exploitation and child sexual abuse content.

How do these rights relate to children’s online experiences?

Using the table below, choose any five articles of the UNCRC (or from the articles defined in the previous section) and consider an example of how these rights could be upheld online. This could be from the perspective of something a child can choose to do online, a tool or digital feature that is provided to help uphold that right, or the role of an organisation or online platform that can provide help in upholding this right.

Several examples have been provided in the table below:

16The right to privacyUsing privacy settings on social media to limit who can contact a child.
13The right to informationA trusted news broadcaster provides a news website for children

If you have time, why not introduce this activity to your students and ask them to consider ways in which their rights can be upheld online?

What laws exist to protect children and young people online?

There are likely a number of laws in your country that apply to online behaviour, including laws around harassment, malicious communications, the creation and sharing of indecent images of children, illegal content, hate speech and data protection. 

It is important to help your learners to be aware of laws that relate to their online behaviour as well as laws that exist to protect them from harm or abuse. As an educational practitioner, laws such as the Digital Services Act (DSA) may not directly impact on your role, but new legislation may affect the online behaviours and habits of the children you work with. Therefore, try to stay aware of when new legislation related to the digital world comes into force and consider carefully how this might affect the safety or well-being of your learners.

How can I support learners to understand and exercise their rights online?

There are a number of things you can do as an educator to empower children and young people to understand and exercise their rights in the digital world:

  • Education – providing learning opportunities for learners on their rights and how they relate to online behaviour and experiences is important. It helps you fulfil your responsibilities in educating learners about their rights, but it also provides opportunities for them to develop the knowledge and skills to keep themselves and others safe online, to recognise when their rights are/aren’t being respected, and to empower them to take positive action to exercise their rights online.
  • Regular discussion – regularly exploring online issues related to children’s rights can be an effective way to help develop their understanding of, and strategies for, managing risk online. You may wish to use news stories or case studies as a way to explore these issues. For older learners, discussing the challenges around upholding rights online and critically evaluating the role of online platforms and other stakeholders can be effective methods for educating learners about their rights and how to exercise them. Learners may share experiences that constitute a safeguarding disclosure so you should always follow your school’s safeguarding and child protection procedures.
  • Empower responsibility – consider opportunities for learners to take responsibility online for promoting their rights and helping others. For example, introducing initiatives such as peer mentors, digital leaders or youth ambassadors can empower learners to exercise their rights and work to uphold the rights of their peers.
  • Enable and respect the voice of youth – Article 12 of the UNCRC outlines the importance of children having a voice in decisions that affect them. Many schools have school councils or other processes to give learners a voice in school. Throughout your work in school, consider whether these processes also allow learners to have a voice in decisions made to protect them online (such as decisions around online safety education, security processes, and other safety processes such as filtering and monitoring). The formation of an Online Safety Group that includes all relevant stakeholders in the school community can be one approach to enabling learners’ voices in online safety discussions. Check out the learning module ‘Working towards a whole-school approach’ to discover more.

Visuals that shows education, discussion and responsibility.

What are the roles of others in protecting children’s rights in a digital world?

We all play a role in protecting and upholding children’s rights – all the adults around children must take responsibility. This includes schools and teachers, parents/caregivers, governments and authorities at local, regional and national levels, NGOs, companies and online service providers.

As a teacher, your main responsibilities lie in helping your students to understand and exercise their rights online, and in supporting your school’s approach to upholding children’s rights and empowering all students to exercise their rights. You can also encourage parents/caregivers and your colleagues to be aware of children’s rights online and how they can support their students.

Governments hold responsibility for ensuring children’s rights are respected across all areas of society that they govern. This includes drafting and introducing legislation where necessary to ensure that companies and organisations comply with good practices towards respecting and protecting children’s rights.

Online service providers and companies are being held more responsible for the safety and welfare of children using their services. Many recognise that they have a duty of care towards all users, but especially children. Many services have introduced reporting tools and safety centres to help deal with issues affecting children on their platforms.

Don’t forget, you can also access advice and support regarding the online safety of children through your national Safer Internet Centre helpline.

What can a child do if their rights are violated?

There are steps a child or young person can take if they feel their rights have been violated online. Being aware of these can help you as an educator to support your students to gain help and support. Because of the complex nature of online spaces and digital lives, it is not guaranteed that referring a rights violation will result in a positive change or outcome, but it is important to help children stand up for their rights nonetheless.

Depending on the rights that have been violated, children can seek support in the following ways:

  • Rights related to safety – Encourage your students to inform the school or local police if their safety is threatened by online experiences. If you become aware of a risk to students’ safety or well-being, make sure you are familiar with your school’s child protection procedures and who you need to report this to in order to ensure the child or children involved receive support.
  • Rights related to online content/behaviour – Encourage and support children to find and use report buttons and tools on games, apps and services to report content or behaviour that is inappropriate or potentially harmful.
  • Rights violations that are criminal offences – Encourage and support your students to report this to the local police. Depending on the nature of the issue, their family may also need support from the school.
  • Rights related to privacy – Your country likely has a Data Protection Authority, details of national authorities across Europe can be found here. Privacy violations can be reported to your national authority. There may also be other organisations in your country that can offer support and advice.
  • All children’s rights or questions about children’s rights – Concerns or questions about children’s rights can be directed towards the Ombudsperson or Commissioner in your country – contact details can be found on the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children site.