My day job is writing a doctoral thesis on futures in African American apocalyptic fiction, so it was surprising to be asked by Dr. Gerison Lansdown to review international documents on children’s rights and the digital environment. The project was to help the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child develop a new standard known as a General Comment. Given that doctoral work is mostly a lone pursuit that involves having lots of tabs open on my laptop and books strewn around my desk covered in Post-it notes, I leapt at the idea of doing something that could have a very real global impact.
Dr. Lansdown was working with the 5Rights Foundation, which aims to articulate the existing rights of children and young people in the digital world, and Professors Sonia Livingstone from the London School of Economics and Amanda Third from Western Sydney University. The topic was fascinating. It wasn’t something I’d given serious thought to before; the internet often seems like a free-for-all, a kind of digital Wild West. Yet, of course, it’s anything but, especially for children. While the potential for creativity and connection online is huge, the internet is increasingly a place where commercial and political interests dominate what is possible and what is not. We live in a world that worries incessantly about children’s safety online, but often fails to think beyond this and ask how we can make the digital environment – impossible to separate from the ‘real’ world – a better space for children.
So, my role was to see where the UN had considered children’s rights in the digital environment. This involved trawling through reports, resolutions, research, official observations, existing standards, and so much more. I was warned before I started that the dominant theme was going to be child protection, specifically from sexual exploitation, and this proved to be the case. Of course, this is unarguably of crucial importance; if children are not safe, they cannot enjoy the full range of rights outlined in the CRC. But as 5Rights Foundation emphasises, it’s not just about avoiding danger, children have the potential to benefit tremendously from going online. Children need to be empowered as rights-holders to shape the digital environment themselves, to participate in it as active citizens, to be creative and make connections with their peers. Their best interests and evolving capacities need to be front and centre in both legislation and design. In short, children must be able to exercise their full range of their rights online.
More recent UN documentation has increasingly begun to reflect this attitude. UNICEF, in particular, have published a range of reports that insist on a more holistic approach to children’s rights in the digital environment. The Committee on the Rights of the Child’s Day of General Discussion in 2014 also helped to set the UN agenda for a more expansive approach. But there nevertheless remains a paucity of information on issues such as children’s privacy – how do we consider children’s place in a commercial model that relies on data collection, and how can the child’s right to privacy be balanced against their right to freedom of expression? How can protection rights be fully realised without impinging on their right to participate or to play? These questions – and many more - are inconclusively and incompletely addressed. Having done the research, I very much hope it proves as useful as it has been interesting and rewarding to carry out. But I have to admit I’m not envious of those who have to provide the answers! It’s back to the apocalypse for me.