Children's Rights in the Digital Age

Audio and video of the event available here.

Report by Alexandra Chernyavskaya, student MSc Media & Communications (Media and Communications Governance) @AfanasyevaAlex

Sonia Livingstone, one of the leading researchers in the area of children’s use of digital technologies, starts her lecture by reflecting on the turn her work unexpectedly took several years ago when she found herself “translating the social science agenda of research on children’s online risks and opportunities into the language of children’s rights”.

With an abundance of the internet-related bills of rights issued nowadays, it is surprising that many of them either do not mention children at all or merely as victims of abuse. This occurs despite the existence of the number of the pressing questions of how children go online, what risks and opportunities they encounter there and how knowing the answers to these question can be translated into the appropriate language that will taken forward by child welfare and internet governance advocates.

In the past decade the volume of research on the role of technology in children’s lives has grown exponentially, in parallel to development and growth of the internet itself. According to Professor Livingstone, the research agenda in this area focused primarily on four fairly straightforward questions:

  • How do children gain access to the internet in their daily lives?
  • Does this access enable them to have equally sufficient access to information, education, participation and other valued opportunities?
  • Does it compound existing vulnerabilities or introduce new risks and harms to children’s well-being?
  • Which initiatives, policies and practices are effective for maximising the benefits and minimising the harm for children in relation to technological progress?

What research repeatedly shows us is that the more children use the internet the more digital skills they gain and the higher they climb the so-called ladder of opportunities to gain all the relevant benefits of being online. However, it is also important to remember that not all internet use practices bring them equal benefits. The chance of gaining those benefits depends on the whole range of factors including children’s age, gender, socioeconomic status as well as parental support and particular opportunities available to them.

Another recurring finding shows that children’s digital skills are positively linked to online risks. Indeed, the more digital skills they gain, the more opportunities they tend to enjoy and the more risks and potentially harm they are likely to encounter. Therefore as children’s use of the internet increases, greater efforts are required to manage those risks, ideally without restricting children’s opportunities

Moving into the domain of children’s digital rights Professor Livingstone notes that one of the major issues within this domain is the fact that on the internet one cannot reliably distinguish an adult from a child. This results in children using services that are not targeted at them while they often lack the digital or other literacies required to navigate and evaluate the demands and norms of the online environment,

However, the fact of children’s presence on the internet cannot be denied and digital technologies are now reconfiguring the pathways through which children are interacting with the world. As a result of this transformation, the question of access has ceased to be merely about access to the internet, but turned into the issues of access to the world through the internet. This issue undeniably adds a sense of urgency to certain policy deliberations.

Up until now the UN Convention on the Rights of the Cchild remains the only globally ratified instrument for protecting children’s rights and it establishes the basic standards and entitlements for children worldwide. Those include right to provision (of resources necessary for survival and development to their full potential), right to protection (from a wide array of threats) and the right to participation (to enable children to engage, play active part in a society). Despite being developed before the age of the global internet, the articles of the convention remain largely relevant the digital age. In addition they help to organise the existing and planned research around these rights, producing an enormous research agenda.

However, such approach also gives rise to several problems. One of them is related to the fact that the existing evidence is always specific to its context. This creates a certain degree of tension between the universal language of the convention and diversity of factors that shape actual communication technology uses, meanings and consequences in different places.

Nowadays there are almost ten times as many children living in the global south as in global south and the question is what do we know about their online experiences. The means of children’s internet use and the consequences of it are changing rapidly. For example in many countries reliance on parental supervision (very common practice in the global north) cannot be seem as a valuable strategy due to parents’ digital illiteracy.

Going back to the human rights perspective, it is important to emphasise that many human rights experts rely heavily on the dichotomy between that positive and negative freedoms.

Children’s protection is a vivid case of negative freedom (being free from violence, abuse etc.) and those tend to be less controversial as they seek to remove harm according to the minimalist approach to rights. Children’s provision and participation rights is, on the contrary, the case of positive freedom which represents highly normative (western, capitalist) perspective on what the good life should be and how the world should be. Interestingly enough very few parents or policy makers are able to give us an elaborate idea of what this could look like and of what would constitute a great provision for children online

The question of children’s rights is generally expected to be addressed by the state, but when it comes to the digital space the states have largely devolved their obligations upwards to the international bodies, downwards to local institutions and most particularly outwards to private sector organisations.

Indeed, addressing the new challenges of the digital age requires the truly global dialogue and deliberation, and, very importantly, this dialogue should include children’s voices and experiences. Children themselves see the internet as an important part of their set of fundamental rights and they ought to participate in the debate surrounding the internet regulation.

“It is with considerable caution and also some enthusiasm that I have argued for a children’s rights framework in the digital age, because it offers a global framework, a strategic vision and ethical inspiration for public empowerment online and offline including for children.” – concludes Professor Livingstone.


John Carr

The first respondent, John Carr, began with the recollections about the first case of what is now called grooming that occurred in the UK in 1997-1998. The individuals who at the time worked for child protection organisation could see a new issue emerging out of that case. However, the representatives of the internet industry, which at the time consisted primarily of the internet service provided, dismissed the concerns that were being voiced on the grounds of lack of evidence. Clearly the situation has changed dramatically since them. The internet industry is now more complicated, but thanks to Sonia’s scholarship we know where to go for intellectual rigour and methodological soundness.

Robin Mansell

Providing further insight into the topic of research on digital rights, Professor Robin Mansell emphasised the importance of research in promoting respect for human rights in the context of knowledge societies of digital age. She noted that it is much more challenging to treat children and citizens as engaged participants in the whole process of managing digital technology interventions. There are many strands in the participatory communication research tradition, but it’s only really when the diversity of contexts in people is recognised there is a chance of tackling troubled communication relationships that are mediated by ICTs or the internet.

The vast majority of ICT development projects even when they aim to empower people overemphasise top-down approaches, short-run impact assessments and idealised visions of the benefits of technology. Plans are often developed without properly informed by local conditions and guided by unwarranted beliefs in the empowering potential of digital services and content.

Until we, as researchers, practitioners and policymakers start emphasising rights, ethical practice and therefore engaged participation by citizens there is little chance of challenging the unequal power relations that shape ICT interventions and their outcomes. Research and advocacy have to be sensitive to local contexts. Implementing ICT projects involving the internet or other digital technologies is likely to have a much greater chance of enabling people in positive ways if we understand that the capabilities for achieving those outcomes are not equally distributed

The capabilities in question are related to how rights could be respected in practice. Internet mediated communication in never uniformly positive and it’s not always transformative in the ways that we would hope.