The internet offers a range of advantages but also a multitude of risks for children who are using it. Two key issues in this context are the need for developing critical literacy skills as well as the lack of child-centered design in online applications. In this post, LSE Professor Sonia Livingstone, who is currently contributing to the UK Government’s Internet Safety Strategy, illustrates why it is about time to give proper consideration to the needs and rights of children online.
“The internet must be made a better place for children.” So says the Lords’ Communications Committee, headlining its new report on “Growing up with the internet.” Publicity for the report has focused on its key recommendations, including that:
The report was published just after the Government announced its new Internet Safety Strategy to ensure the UK becomes “the safest place in the world for young people to go online.” And that announcement in turn came hot on the heels of the Children’s Commissioner for England’s report, Growing up Digital, which also called for a Children’s Digital Ombudsman, digital citizenship in schools, and the importance of child rights in the digital age.
So it seems that the internet is on the minds of many policy makers and practitioners who work with children, as well as parents and, indeed, children themselves. This in turn is because, clearly, the internet has quickly become a necessity rather than a luxury in children’s lives, and parents, educators and governments are struggling to keep up with the risks and opportunities it brings.
As an expert advisor to this new report by the House of Lords, I’ve been privileged to witness some great insights about what should be done. The report makes urgent recommendations, each carefully evidence-based (do check the written and oral evidence submitted).
I see this call – to anticipate child rights issues in designing online services and policies for their use – as a radical but vital contribution. Society cannot continue being reactive, discovering too late that services for “everyone” are used by children, sometimes literally at their own risk, or realizing the unintended consequences of ignoring children’s needs and rights only when something goes wrong.
This is inefficient, expensive, damages the reputation of businesses and the trust of parents and civil society. It also positions children as the canary in the coal mine, making them bear the risk for problems that we can already anticipate based on existing research and prior experience.
So what would it mean to design for a child-rights-friendly internet?
The key recommendation is for:
“Minimum standards for child-friendly design, filtering, privacy, data collection, terms and conditions of use, and report and response mechanisms for all businesses in the internet value chain, public bodies and the voluntary sector” (para 366).
This is supported by a series of design suggestions – for minimum standards for reporting and response to child users’ concerns, transparency and accountability for filters and data processing operations, default-on privacy settings and content filters (which adults can turn off, of course), and so on. And for a code of conduct by which all this can be brought together, monitored and evaluated. Crucial, too, is the expectation that:
“The Government should establish minimum standards of design in the best interests of the child for internet products. For the avoidance of doubt this is for all products that might reasonably be expected to attract a large proportion of children, not only those designed with children in mind” (para 299).
Too often, a duty of care is accepted for services targeted at children but not for all the other services that children use as part of “the general population” (which indeed they are). Yes, this may bear a cost, as the report also recognizes, stating that:
“Minimum standards should incorporate the child’s best interests as a primary consideration, and in doing so require companies to forgo some of their current design norms to meet the needs of children” (para 301).
Some may balk at this, but it’s worth remembering that the UK has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as so is obligated to ensure that businesses meet their responsibilities regarding child rights.
Perhaps the most telling claim in the report is that:
“We have found that there is resistance to providing services which incorporate the support and respect for rights that would enable a better internet experience for all children as they explore the wider internet” (para 298).
The internet is here to stay – and so are its child users. It’s time we prioritised their needs and rights, for the benefit of children now and society both now and in the future.
Published on LSE website on March 30, 2017.
By HELEN COLLIS
Medical staff working in England’s National Health Service recorded close to 5,500 cases of female genital mutilation (FGM) in 2016, but no one has been successfully prosecuted since the practice was banned over 30 years ago.
FGM is a procedure where the genitals of young girls are deliberately cut, injured or changed for cultural, religious and social reasons. It has been illegal in the U.K. since 1985 and is classified as child abuse.
In a report out Tuesday, NHS Digital said it found 1,268 newly recorded cases from October to December last year, compared with 1,240 in the previous quarter.
There were over 16,000 attendances at NHS hospitals and GP practices in 2016 relating to FGM.
Among the cases, 96 percent of women were aged 17 or younger when FGM was carried out, but almost all (98 percent) were 18 or over when their FGM case was recorded.
Many families often take their daughters abroad to be cut. In 2003, the government expanded the law to make it a criminal offense for U.K. nationals or permanent residents to take their child abroad for FGM.
Since October 2015, it has been mandatory for health care professionals to alert authorities to the illegal practice.
“The figures are astonishing. While clear progress is being made at identifying FGM in a health setting, far more must be done in schools to raise awareness of the practice and help teachers flag children at risk,” said Liberal Democrat Shadow Equalities Secretary Lorely Burt.
She called on the government to “redouble efforts” to tackle this crime.
This article was published on Politico's website on March 7, 2017.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child sets out the rights that must be realized for children to develop their full potential, free from hunger and want, neglect and abuse. It reflects a new vision of the child. Children are neither the property of their parents nor are they helpless objects of charity. They are human beings and are the subject of their own rights. The Convention offers a vision of the child as an individual and as a member of a family and community, with rights and responsibilities appropriate to his or her age and stage of development. By recognizing children's rights in this way, the Convention firmly sets the focus on the whole child.