LSE research has systematically investigated children’s rights online, and shaped national and international policies to protect children and enhance their human rights in the digital environment.
What was the problem?
In recent years there has been intense discussion about children’s safety online. Children’s digital experiences vary depending on their location and circumstances, but there has been little research on what factors determine particular risks and what policies are effective for protecting children from online harms.
Wider questions about the opportunities and the digital needs of children in terms of education and the right to fully participate in society remain underexamined. The global evidence base for many aspects of children’s digital lives is partial and fragmented, with pressing gaps in knowledge about children in the Global South, how they use the internet, and what opportunities they are missing.
What did we do?
Led by Professor Sonia Livingstone, Global Kids Online (GKO) is a joint LSE/UNICEF project that investigates how children benefit from the internet and digital technologies and how to protect them from associated risks.
Adopting a children’s rights framing to conduct comparative research, the project covers over 20 countries, investigating how children are using the internet, with a particular focus on opportunities, risks, and safety. It grew out of the EU Kids Online (EUKO) project, but addresses all continents, especially in the Global South. Following an agenda-setting report on children’s rights and digital technologies in 2013, Livingstone collaborated with UNICEF’s Office of Research (Innocenti) and LSE colleagues to launch GKO in 2015.
GKO’s design and intellectual framework draws on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). This encompasses not only the rights to privacy and to protection from harm, but also civil rights and freedom to participate, and the rights to play, education, health, and a family life in a digital world. The team, led by Livingstone and UNICEF’s Daniel Kardefelt-Winther, produced new conceptual analyses and the first directly comparable findings in middle- and high-income countries about children’s digital lives.
Drawing on this research, GKO produced a free toolkit including expert guidance, survey questionnaire tools, and qualitative resources to help country partners plan, conduct, and monitor research impact. So far, GKO has surveyed over 25,000 children and their parents or carers in 15 countries, with research underway in several more.
An 11-country full report published in 2019 found that digital technology enhances children’s ability to participate in the world, but it also poses particular risks to their safety. These opportunities and risks are shaped by age, gender, the country where they live, and other inequalities. Contrary to popular assumptions, parental mediation (such as limiting “screen time”) only partially protects children from harm. Strategies that enable children to use the internet rather than restrict their access, enhance their rights to education and the provision of age-appropriate digital resources. The policy implications are that governments should improve access and address inequality and children’s digital literacy, offer parents support, and consider platform regulation.
GKO proposed a standardised typology of the main risks that children face online, highlighting exposure to pornography, self-harm, hate content, cyberbullying, contact with strangers met online, and sexual exploitation. The research established that the risks and protective factors associated with such harms include the child’s vulnerability, risk-taking, digital skills, breadth of digital activity, offline risk exposure, and country they live in.
These detailed findings enable governments to prioritise policy actions as needed and provide a benchmark for future research and evaluations. They also provide a strong alternative to the moral panic and overly restrictive policies – enacted both by parents and states – that typically frame how children use the internet.
This body of research has helped to transform society’s conceptualisation of children’s rights in a digital world and has guided governments and NGOs as they plan, budget for, and target their child protection policies and interventions.
Most significantly, UNICEF has incorporated GKO research into a whole body of international policy and agenda-setting work – notably in its flagship “State of the World’s Children” report in 2017. This shapes the work of many of UNICEF’s 192 country offices, which advocate for children’s rights in national digital policies and interventions.
In 2018, an independent evaluation of GKO’s research impact commissioned by UNICEF found that it had directly informed national-level policy reforms in numerous countries, from Albania to Argentina. It has been used by governments to shape legislation on online harms and to create training resources for professionals, including supporting teachers to raise awareness of child protection, in countries as diverse as Bulgaria, Montenegro, the Philippines, Argentina, and Ghana. For example, in South Africa, they have introduced e-safety training for children and educators, while the internet regulator has also reduced data costs after GKO results showed that they were a barrier to poorer children’s access.
Beyond her work with UNICEF, Livingstone has worked closely with several high-level international policy organisations on improving children’s rights in the digital sphere. She was instrumental in the Council of Europe’s work on children’s rights in the digital environment, drafting its 2018 guidelines to member states. This constitutes the first international legal standard to set out national obligations and corporate responsibilities towards children online. The Council of Europe’s 2020 impact evaluation of this found that 34 member states have since instituted legal or policy changes as a result. Livingstone was appointed lead author of the Council of Europe’s handbook for policymakers on the rights of the child in the digital environment (2020) for its 47 member states.
As with other treaty bodies, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child directs state parties to implement Convention rights in specific areas through a General Comment. Livingstone was commissioned by the Children’s Commissioner for England to write a report on the case for a General Comment on children’s rights and digital media. This case was successful, and in 2019 the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child appointed Livingstone as the consultant to lead the drafting of General Comment 25 on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment. This was formally adopted in February 2021.
Taken together, this research, and Livingstone’s collaborative work with UNICEF and other international organisations, has benefited countless children, not just in protecting them from online harms, but also reforming policies so they can better fulfil their rights to participate, learn, and live online. Focusing on just national policies, this research has helped around 71 million children – though the extent of international influence means the total number is far greater.