Children s rights and their online and digital interactions: briefing ahead of Baroness Kidron s debate, 20 th November 2014

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1 Children s rights and their online and digital interactions: briefing ahead of Baroness Kidron s debate, 20 th November 2014 Background The World Wide Web is coming of age in the same year as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). But, how do children and young people s online and digital interactions impact upon the rights afforded to them under the Convention, and how will they do so in the future? On Thursday 20 th November the 25 th anniversary of the UNCRC Baroness Kidron will lead a balloted debate on this issue. Focusing on children in the UK, this briefing provides an overview of the key issues and evidence. Summary: Children s use of the Internet through computers, tablets, mobile phones and TV has grown exponentially in the last decade. With the introduction and increased availability of internet enabled mobile phones and personalised technology, the nature of children s engagement with the digital world has been transformed. This poses significant questions for parents and carers, and for the environments in which children are cared for, learn and develop, including schools. Going online can pose a threat to children s right to protection from violence and abuse, through for example exposure to online grooming, cyberbullying and inappropriate violent or sexual content and the distribution of child abuse images. There are concerns about the potential impact on children of comments or images that they or others post online, both now and into their adulthood, a potential threat to their right to privacy. However, the internet can empower children and young people to exercise their rights, giving them opportunities to: learn and explore the world around them (right to education); access information about their health and development (right to healthcare and health information); socialise with their peers, gain and offer support and advice, and participate in communities of geography or identity (right to participation and association); and have fun (right to freedom of expression and rest and leisure). Nevertheless, many children such as those living in poverty and disabled children face barriers to taking advantage of these opportunities. Experts argue for an approach to children and young people s engagement with digital technology which balances these risks and benefits, so that heightened anxiety about going online does not pose a barrier to children taking advantage of online opportunities. There is a need for a framework or set of rights based principles agreed, adopted and lived across sectors, political parties, governments and institutions for promoting children s rights in the digital age. NCB and CRAE call on members of the House of Lords to celebrate the 25 th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child by joining Baroness Kidron to debate how children s rights can be protected and promoted in the digital age. 1

2 Children s digital lives It is widely accepted that what we now know as the Internet began life in 1989 in CERN, Switzerland developed as the World Wide Web by English computer scientist Tim Berners Lee 1. In the same period the UN General Assembly was preparing to adopt and ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most rapidly and widely ratified international human rights treaty in history 2. Neither Berners Lee nor the signatories to the UNCRC could have predicted the degree to which technology has become such a significant part of the daily life of children and young people, a transformation which has brought both benefits and real vulnerabilities 3. Children s use of computers, tablets, mobile and smart phones and TV has grown significantly in the last decade and children are going online at younger ages: In 2012, 77 % of under 25s in the developed world were using the internet 4 60 per cent of 9 16 year old internet users in Europe go online daily, and a further 33 per cent go online at least weekly 5 The average age of first time internet use is seven years in Sweden and eight years in other Northern European countries 6 One survey i reveals the differences between children s actual internet use and parents perceptions: children were spending on average 39 hours per month on the internet, twice as much time as their parents estimated 7. With the introduction and increased availability of internet enabled smartphones, the nature of children s engagement with the digital world has been transformed; children can have constant access, able to communicate and access online material free from parental supervision 8. Many have referred to today s children and young people as digital natives, so at ease in a digital realm that it caters for their every need. However, a closer look at young people s use of digital technology reveals a more complex picture. Experts have described a ladder of opportunities while the majority of children will use the internet to play games and do schoolwork, only around a quarter will engage in more complex activities such as visiting chatrooms, sharing music and videos, blogging and spending time in a virtual world 9. Many children and young people people remain on the lower rungs of digital understanding 10. What does increasing engagement in the digital world mean for children s rights under the UNCRC? Going online can pose a significant threat to the protection of children s rights, through for example exposure to online grooming, cyberbullying and inappropriate violent or sexual i A survey of 9,000 adult and child Internet users in 12 countries, including China, India, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States 2

3 content, overexposure to advertising and the distribution of child abuse images. However, the internet can empower children and young people, giving them opportunities to: learn and explore the world around them; access information about their health and development; have fun; socialise with their peers; gain and offer support and advice; and participate in communities of geography or identity;. Experts argue for an approach to children and young people s engagement with digital technology which balances these risks and benefits, so that heightened anxiety about going online does not pose a barrier to children taking advantage of online opportunities 11. Education Article 28 of the UNCRC confers on all children the right to education. According to the EU Kids Online Network, 85% of European 9 16 years olds go online for schoolwork 12. Access to the internet enables young people not only to do their formal school work, but also to find information, form opinions and participate in debate. At the same time, children s rights under Article 28 mean they are entitled to learn about the internet, so that they can make better choices, make the most out of online opportunities and protect themselves. Health Under Article 24 of the UNCRC, children have the right to good quality health care and to information to help them stay healthy. Under Article 17, children and young people have the right to access mass media, especially those aimed at the promotion of their health and wellbeing, and to protection from material that may harm their well being. Young people consulted by the National Children s Bureau identified the benefits of going online to access health information and services. However, they also questioned whether they would be confident to identify trustworthy information sources and to filter often complex information so that it was relevant to them 13. At the same time, through the Internet, children and young people are able to access (possibly unsupervised) information that poses a risk to their health, such as instructive websites on anorexia or self harm. Going online enables children and young people to access support not only from formal services, but also from each other: young people we work with talk about all the help they ve found from others [other young people] online and that often this has been far more supportive than specialist services in the community 14. Excessive use of digital technology games, video sites or chatrooms that are always available poses a threat to children s physical and mental health. One in twenty children report often missing sleep and food because of Internet use 15. It has been argued that instant and constant access to digital communication stifles time for stillness and selfreflection 16. 3

4 Violence and abuse Article 19 of the UNCRC confers upon children the right to protection from all forms of physical and mental violence and abuse. Widespread concerns about the risks to children posed by the internet centre around concerns relating to bullying, exploitation and abuse. In a poll of 1,500 young people earlier this year, 39 per cent said that they had been cyberbullied, and 9 per cent said that this was happening at least once a week. 17 In the past year, there was an 87 per cent increase in the number of children contacting ChildLine about online bullying 18. There is a concerning lack of reliable data about the numbers of individuals engaging in the online grooming of children 19. It is estimated that there are millions of child abuse images on the internet, depicting the abuse of tens of thousands of children with peer to peer sharing technology enabling more covert distribution of images 20. However, the Internet also offers alternative means of getting support and information for children suffering, or at risk of, abuse. For example, ChildLine has seen a dramatic increase in demand for online counselling sessions 21. Participation and association, freedom of expression, rest and leisure Article 12 of the UNCRC confers on children and young people the right to have their say in decisions that affect them, and to have those views given due weight. Article 13 gives children the right to freedom of expression, and Article 15 the right to freedom of association and peaceful assembly. Under Article 31, children have the right to rest, leisure and participation in cultural life and the arts. It is in this area of children s rights that the opportunities of digital technology are most apparent, enabling children and young people to connect and communicate, coalesce with other citizens around issues of interest, and play and have fun. Playing video games is among the top favourite online activities for children and young people of all ages in the UK 22 Children and young people who may be marginalised or struggling with health or identity issues, including lesbian, gay, transgender and questioning young people, disabled children or those with mental health problems, use the Internet to form and join communities of interest, providing a vital communal link for those who might otherwise be isolated % of children belong to a social networking site 24. Used safely, these sites can support children s creativity and self expression, enable them to make choices and form opinions, provide an economical means of communication, provide access to fun and games, and give them the confidence to talk about issues they may avoid discussing face to face. There are concerns about whether children are using social networking sites at too young an age, despite the introduction of age related safeguards on many sites. For example, in 4

5 2010, 25 per cent of UK children aged 8 to 12 who used the internet at home said that they were on Facebook, Bebo and/or Myspace, up from 15 per cent in Children and young people themselves can play an active role in promoting online safety to their peers, particularly where their parents, carers or significant adults have lower levels of knowledge and understanding. Privacy Children have a right to privacy Under Article 16 of the UNCRC. However, currently the internet never forgets and never corrects 26. There are concerns about the potential impact on children of comments or images that they or others post online, both now and into their adulthood. For example, a 17 year old youth crime commissioner resigned over comments she made on Twitter between the ages of 14 and Like adults, children often have a lack of control over their online information, and decisions made with limited understanding of the consequences or risks are difficult to reverse. Non discrimination in the application of children s rights Article 2 of the UNCRC states that the Convention applies to all children, whatever their race, religion or abilities, whatever they think or say and whatever type of family they come from. Specifically, under Article 23, disabled children have the right to special care and support so that they can live full and independent lives. However, many children do face barriers to taking advantage of the opportunities provided by digital technology, opportunities which enable the fulfilment of children s rights. Three in ten children whose family is not well off at all said they had fallen behind at school because their family could not afford computer or internet facilities at home 28. Sonia Livingstone describes a continuum of internet access and use, whereby children from wealthier families are more likely than their disadvantaged peers to use the internet, use it more often and for longer, be skilled at using the internet and take up a broad range of online opportunities 29. Disability in childhood is associated with lower levels of internet access in the home. Sometimes, approaches to protecting children, such as automated and blanket filtering, discriminate against specific groups of children, for example non heterosexuals, potentially increasing vulnerability by restricting their access to information 30. A framework for promoting children s rights online Children and young people are often pioneers in the take up of digital innovations, posing a challenge to parents, carers, teachers and adult communities seeking to protect and educate them in the online world. Indeed, the gap between parental perceptions and children s levels of online activity may indicate a lack of parental engagement, supervision and communication with children 31. At the same time, the ladder of opportunity shows that rather than simply leaving the digital natives to their own devices society needs to give support, guidance and 5

6 protection to children and young people, if they are to take advantage of the full range of opportunities available to them online. However, there is currently no single framework or set of principles agreed and implemented across sectors, political parties, governments and institutions for promoting children s rights in the digital age. Such a framework could be adopted to guide policies, strategies and development within the corporate, statutory and voluntary sectors. It could enable national and local policy makers, service providers and the technology sector to make sure that the Internet s growth over the next 25 years is guided by an understanding of and commitment to children s rights. One response to this issue is irights: a set of principles ii seeking to empower children online, and to provide them with the support and protection they need to engage with the digital world creatively, knowledgably and fearlessly 32. The irights principles have received interest and support from technology organisations, children s charities and individuals. NCB and CRAE call on member of the House of Lords to celebrate the 25 th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child by joining Baroness Kidron to debate how children s rights can be protected and promoted in the digital age. Contact: Zoe Renton, Head of Policy, Public Affairs and Information, National Children s Bureau Anna Edmundson, Policy and Programmes Manager, Children's Rights Alliance for England References 1 Norris, P. (2001). Digital Divide: Civic Engagement, Information Poverty and the Internet Worldwide, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge 2 3 UNICEF (2014) 25 Years of the Convention of the Rights of the Child: is the world a better place for children? pdf 4 International Telecommunications Union (2012) Measuring the Information Society ii The current irights principles are: the right to remove content they have created, to know who is holding and profiting from their information, to safety and support, to make informed and conscious choices, and to digital literacy 6

7 5 Livingstone S et al (2011a) EU Kids Online September 2011 LSE, London: EU Kids Online.http://www.lse.ac.uk/media%40lse/research/EUKidsOnline/EU%20Kids%20II%20( )/EUKidsOnlineIIReports/Final%20report.pdf 6 Livingstone S et al (2011b) Risks and safety on the internet: The perspective of European children. LSE, London: EU Kids Online. 11)/EUKidsOnlineIIReports/D4FullFindings.pdf 7 Livingstone S et al (2011a) op. cit. 8 Livingstone S and Bulger M (2013) A Global Agenda for Children s Rights in the Digital Age irc.org/publications/702 ; UNICEF (2011) Child Safety Online: Global Challenges and Strategies irc.org/publications/650 9 Livingstone S et al (2011a) op. cit. 10 irights (2014) Enabling children and young people to access the internet creatively, knowledgeably and fearlessly working draft, p Livingstone S and Bulger M (2013) op. cit. 12 Livingstone S et al (2011b) op. cit. 13 NCB (2012) Information Technology, Feedback and Health: Young people s opinions about health and information: What works, what needs to change and ideas for the future 14 Young Minds Submission to Health Select Committee inquiry into child and adolescent mental health services, Smahel D et al (2012) Excessive internet use among European children. EU Kids Online, London School of Economics & Political Science, London, UK. 16 Turkle S (2011) Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology, and less from each other. New York: Basic Books 17 One Poll Survey for Channel 5 and NCB January NSPCC submission to Health Select Committee inquiry into child and adolescent mental health services 19 UNICEF (2011) op. cit. 20 UNICEF (2011) op. cit. 21 NSPCC (2013) Real Life Stories: The NSPCC Annual Report and Accounts reports/nspcc annual report 2013.pdf 22 UNICEF (2012) Child Safety Online: Global challenges and strategies: technical report irc.org/publications/pdf/ict_techreport3_eng.pdf 23 UNICEF (2012) op. cit., Young Minds Submission to CAMHS Select Committee 24 Public Health England submission to Health Select Committee inquiry into child and adolescent mental health services, Ofcom (2010) UK Children s Media Literacy. dataresearch/media literacy/medlitpub/medlitpubrss/ukchildrensml/ 26 irights (2014) op. cit. p.3 27 Guardian, Sunday 21 April 2013, Paris Brown: no further action to be taken over Twitter comments brown no action twitter comments 28 The Children s Commission on Poverty (2014) At what cost? Exposing the impact of poverty on school life https://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/sites/default/files/at%20what%20cost%20exposing%20the%20im pact%20of%20poverty%20on%20school%20life%20 %20Full%20Report.pdf 7

8 29 Livingstone et al (2005) Inequalities and the Digital Divide in Children and Young People s Internet Use: Findings from the UK Children Go Online project [accessed at 30 UNICEF (2012) op. cit. 31 UNICEF (2011) op. cit. p.3 32 irights (2014) op. cit. p.1 8

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