DAY OF GENERAL DISCUSSION 2014: Children’s rights and digital media

[GENEVA, 12 September 2014] - The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s 2014 day of general discussion (DGD) looked at how children’s rights can be applied to the digital context.  At the heart of the debate is the need to find a “balance between empowerment and protection”, said Ms. Kirsten Sandberg, Chairperson of the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) - a conclusion echoed throughout the day.

Some 170 participants attended the discussion, but Ms. Sandberg explained that while children would be able to follow the discussion online and contribute via social media, they were not invited to attend in person because children invited to previous DGDs had felt uncomfortable in the setting.

Rewiring children's lives

First to speak, Prof. Sonia Livingstone, from EU Kids Online, who has spent over 20 years researching how children engage with the changing media environment, explained that fast developing ICTs were reshaping children's lives for better and for worse. She said that it is increasingly difficult to separate online and offline lives, and that "we are witnessing a reconfiguration of risks and opportunities in children's lives". She noted that government policies promote ICTs so businesses can compete in the global economy, but they rarely consider children's needs in this arena. It is simply assumed that children are "digital natives". In tandem with this idea, the media spreads panic about pornography and paedophiles, companies are targeting children as a growing consumer market, and those working on issues concerning children have many other things to worry about.

Prof. Livingstone noted that most of the evidence for children's online experiences currently comes from the Global North. She highlighted that context is central to how we understand and respond to children's online experiences, but also that children's rights are universal and that any response must therefore also judged be against common values as children's rights are universal, (e.g. they must be grounded in evidence and children's experiences, fair and inclusive, transparent and accountable and independently evaluated).

Protection does not equal censorship

Next up, Mr. Frank LaRue, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, asserted his opposition to all forms of censorship, but also his strong belief in the protection of children, saying that he finds no contradiction between the two. However, the concept of child protection should not be used to stifle public debate, he said. Commenting on the new challenges posed by the internet, he said that while television programmes can be regulated by watersheds and public spectacles by age, the internet is much more difficult to regulate and we need to use methods that prevent harm without eliminating children's access to digital media. What is clear, he said, is that we must look at mechanisms of communication from a human rights perspective. Finally, he expressed concern that the internet is becoming a tool available only to technocrats, creating an ever wider gap between North and South.

Doing things differently

Presenting an example of how ICTs can be used to empower children in practice, Mr. Simeon Oriko, described the project “Jamlab” in Kenya. Jamlab is a community of former high school students who provide peer mentoring, and encourage learning through the use of open educational resources, using the internet as the basis for everything they do.

The final speaker, Prof. Amanda Third, Institute for Culture and Society, University of Western Sydney, described the Rights of the Child in the Digital Age Project carried out by Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre in partnership with the Digitally Connected Network and UNICEF. The project brings together the voices of more than 140 young people aged 6 to 18, from 16 countries to inform governments and others on ways to bring the rights of children in the digital age to the fore. She explained some of the most common uses of digital media by children, including: social connections, access to information, education, creativity and self expression and entertainment. She ended by asserting that any form of protection needs to be balanced with giving children adequate space to participate in digital media.

A matter of trust

At this point, a contribution was received from a girl in Malaysia in which she stressed many young people's feeling that adults do not trust them and that this limited their online opportunities. This sense of a lack of trust, not only between children and adults, but also between internet users and private companies and governments in relation to online data protection was a recurrent theme of the day.

Who makes the rules?

Discussion of how digital media relates to the full spectrum of children’s rights, not just protection - as is sometimes the case, was covered during the day. However, as one participant from Mexico observed in the working groups: the rules about the internet are made by legislators - older people who are way behind the technological developments which are made every two to three months, so we must find a better way of developing policy that better reflects the reality both of advances in technology and how these are used by children.

For the second part of the day participants were divided into two working groups (summarised below).

Working group 1: Children's equal and safe access to digital media and ICT

Ms. Roxana Widmer-Iliescu, from the International Telecommunications Union, said that information and communications technologies (ICT) are infiltrating and impacting all aspects of our lives. Digital literacy is as important as reading and writing in modern society. Yet, for many children, especially girls, access to and use of ICTs remains a huge challenge. The reasons vary from affordability, lack of knowledge and skills, accessibility, living in remote areas and cultural factors.

Mr. John Carr, from ECPAT International, raised the issue of controlling the access and availability of age inappropriate material without violating human rights. He explained that it is very important to remember that children are different, some are more vulnerable. We should therefore come up with solutions for the different needs of children.

Mr. Rabih Karmacharya, from One Laptop per Child in Nepal, talked about the importance of using ICTs in education. This helps reduce disparities in education and engage children in the learning process. Mr. Karmacharya explained that the challenges were that adult supervision was not always possible because adults often don't know how to use digital media and lack awareness of the risks children face.

Dr. Juan Cruz Gonzalez-Alonco, from the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights in Argentina, described a government programme in Argentina that provides netbooks to low income families, trains children, parents and teachers on how to stay safe online and helps children develop their critical capacities when using digital media.

Working group 2: Children’s empowerment and engagement through digital media and ICT

Prof. Ferhan Odabasi, from the Department of Computer Education and Institutional Technology, Anadolu University, Turkey,  emphasised that digital literacy skills will not necessarily empower us if we don't have the philosophy and ethics to go with it, and that to get the benefit, we must also develop social and emotional literacy.

Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, UN Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, set out her vision of children building their own online spaces of collaboration and support. She argued that the tendency is to sanction children for adult abuse, when the focus should be on adults. Our work with children should be to support them to develop their knowledge and skills so that they are better able to protect themselves and develop a kind of immunity. To do this we need to use the language of children and involve children in developing new tools which can be used alongside awareness raising,  government policy and law enforcement to protect children. She gave a concrete example of crowd sourcing as a way for children to report abuse safely and anonymously.

Ms. Marcela Czarny, RedNATIC/, talked about their work developing children's digital to citizenship across Latin America, introducing a Latin American youth manifesto on the subject. She also touched on internet governance issues, asserting that the private sector should not take decisions about how access to the internet is determined.

Finally, Ms. Janice Richardson, from the INSAFE Network, presented a Youth Manifesto for Europe. The Manifesto sets out what would make a better Internet in the future and is based on ideas gathered through crowdsourcing from young people in 31 countries. Many of their ideas link to articles of the CRC, particularly articles 13 and 17 (freedom of expression and extra information), article 19 (freedom from violence) and article 29 (right to a quality education).


Working group 1: Children's equal and safe access to digital media and ICT

Issue: Access
  • Ensure equal access to digital media and ICTs by:
    - providing technology/infrastructure.
    - ensuring free and low cost accessibility.
    - targeted efforts for different groups of children, in particular girls, children with disabilities and other vulnerable groups of children.
Issue: digital literacy
  • Provide good quality digital education for children, parents, teachers and all those working with and for children.
  • Include online education methods in school programmes, including children with disabilities.
  • Ensure training in social behaviour online - social literacy.
Issue: safety
  • Ensure awareness raising for children and adults of all risks and harm.
  • Provide training for law enforcement and others working with children.
  • Develop technological solutions for prevention and protection.
  • Ensure availability of assistance and support, including child friendly complaints mechanisms, helplines and compensation for victims.
Issue: data and evaluation
  • Promote research and data collection.
  • Create a platform for sharing and exchanging good practice.
  • Ensure that laws and policies are evidence - based.
  • Ensure periodic review and evaluation
Issue: collaboration and joint responsibility
  • Ensure collaboration and inclusion of all actors involved.
  • Joint responsibility of the State and all other actors.
  • Ensure that children are heard and their views are always taken into account in developing strategies and measures to access and ensure protection.

Working group 2: children' s empowerment and engagement through digital media and ICTs

Issue: multi a stakeholder approach and cooperation
  • All stakeholders need to understand their responsibilities with respect to children and digital media.
  • Different stakeholders need to play different roles.
  • Stakeholders must engage in a dialogue in the interests of better cooperation.
Issue: importance of empowerment
  • Give children digital literacy and promote digital citizenship.
Issue: balance between protection and participation
  • Any approach taken to limit the risks of harm that children face in their digital lives should be balanced against the enjoyment of other rights, including freedom of expression, rights to participation and right to association.
  • Children should play a key role in protecting themselves and their peers against harm.

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