Building the Internet: What about the children?

If you are like me, I am at the age where most of my friends have recently been married and are now having children. So naturally it would seem obvious that my social media feeds are now filled with many of my friends as new parents running commentary of their children’s lives. Based on my newsfeeds alone, it becomes apparent that every one of my friends’ children has a digital footprint. An online presence consisting of either Facebook videos, Instagram profiles, digital snapshots of their lives stored on the Cloud and any other personal identifiable information one can imagine. And this digital footprint, for many, began before these children were even born.

As these children grow up, digital technology is ubiquitous thus will become their natural way of life – with many learning digital skills even before basic life skills. And their digital footprint will continue to grow with them. It is without doubt children will increasingly act within and through online media.

So if digital connectivity will be ever-present in children’s lives, how are we presently building the Internet for them? In the current state-of-play, are we leaving children out? How are we preparing the Internet for children in a global information society? The key questions we have to ask revolve around whether the existing Internet Bill of Rights as modus operandi, the conditions of access for children and the understanding of Internet usage among children are both sufficient and effective, today.

1.  Existing policies and practices may not suggest to be as effective as they should be.

internet safety organisations
Children’s safety on the internet: a guide to stakeholders

There is a proliferation of Internet Bill of Rights with new bills being passed everyday yet many of these policies do not cover the subject of children and their rights, except as victims of abuse. In the past decade the volume of research in technology in children’s lives has grown exponentially paralleling the spread of the Internet itself, yet there is still a need to translate the research agenda into the language of children’s rights. Presently, there is little evidence to suggest that children and their needs have been considered with regards to the formation of political, educational and social policy initiatives. As a result, many different charters and manifestos regarding the digital rights for children have been adapted from conservative legislation based on UNICEF’s Children Protection Rights. There is nothing else out there to replace it.

On face value, this should seem adequate, however traditional Children Protection Rights only serve to protect children’s negative freedoms. For example, “A child should be free from (…violence, abuse etc.)” may protect by imposing restrictions disguised to safeguard children but can too undermine their opportunities to learn, participate, play, work and socialise. These policies are often not put under the microscope by the public and are regarded less controversial because they are perceived to be removing potential harms.

When it comes to the digital space, we tend to assume we have already the right institutions for policy-making. What if this isn’t the case? Very few people would speak against child rights online but many more policymakers, parents and practitioners are unable to also give an elaborate idea of what good provisional Internet access looks like for children. So if we want to alter the course on how Internet policies are applicable for children, we need to envision what we want for them by understanding what children want from the Internet. We need to have a democratic dialogue in a multi-stakeholder environment – not just among the usual organisations but by including the children’s voices and experiences. The Internet will be or already is an important part of their lives and they should be involved and engaged with the policy processes that help shape the Internet.

Recommended further reading:
¹The Protection of Children Online, OECD Council
²Protecting Children in the Digital World, Summaries of EU Legislation
³Children’s safety on the Internet: Guide compiled by Alexandra Chernyavskava and Professor Sonia Livingstone, with thanks to EU Kids Online and the Internet safety experts who were consulted

2. Internet policies that have been created offer no relevance and are contentious in developing markets as they are often designed without being properly informed by local conditions.

Digital divide: Developed markets (Global North) vs. Developing markets (Global South)

In the absence of formal online rights, the UN Convention of the Rights of Children remain the only global instrument for protecting children’s rights as it establishes the framework for children worldwide. However, a tension arises between the ‘universalism’ of the convention and the specific of the local.  As with most governance, Internet policies have predominantly been developed in USA or Europe, yet are simply extrapolated to developing markets.

Many of the established strategies used in developed markets to protect children in the digital age have unknown consequences in developing markets as they work based on the following assumptions: the existence of an enforcement organisation ecosystem, mature co- and self-regulation measures, education and guides on the responsible use of the Internet, and finally, committed development of training for parents, educators and children.

So how do these standard strategies apply in the global digital divide – where children access in developing markets differ to those in the developed markets?

Based on latest global population statistics, there will be 10x as many children living in developing markets than developed – and for many of them, Internet access is becoming a reality. Thus constituting a growing proportion of the global population of Internet users. Using the same data, one-third of all Internet users will soon be children.  So isn’t it time to consider children’s rights in the digital age and do so with a global lens?

By mapping contexts in Brazil, Russia, India and China – four fastest-growing markets in the world, it becomes apparent how different those countries are from developed markets.

  • Internet access in developing markets is increasingly mobile-first with high mobile apps and social network usage, rather than desktop or workplace-first in developed markets.
  • Access in the developing world is often community-based – for example cybercafes and public workarounds where these little supervised Internet-accessed locations are frequented because parents do not understand the digital world and so are highly restrictive of their children’s usage. This isn’t the case in developed markets where much governance is centered only around the home and in school.
  • It is also common for children in the developing markets to share their mobile phone devices to meet one’s or shared needs, whereas in developed markets children hardly ever share their devices.

I therefore have to ask, can policies sustain strategies that presume the existence of institutional voids? I hope so. Even if it means adapting and sometimes even changing the context in which they currently operate. For instance, developing markets must be considered in the discussion on forward-looking policies. Strategies have to fit the conditions in developing markets in order to fully develop their potential. This is the only way policies and governance can be both relevant and applicable if they wish to secure their future.

Recommended further reading:
¹A global perspective on children’s rights as media change

3. What about net neutrality? The premise of an open and free Internet itself creates challenges for children’s empowerment and protection online.

netneutrality content blocked
The inability or unreliability of the Internet to distinguish a child from an adult online results in many adult freedoms being restricted

In the early days of the Internet, public policy concern for children centered on inappropriate content but have since shifted to the growing acceptance that what is illegal or inappropriate offline is or should be the same online. In the effort to apply offline regulation and governance practices online, children’s rights and protection measures are readily viewed as a threat to adult rights. Can the digital community find a way to advance children’s rights online without unduly trampling on business or adults’ interests?

The digital ecology is increasingly becoming more opaque. The idea of the ‘free and open’ Internet centered on the premise of net neutrality implies that all content and platforms are therefore treated equally. Current digital content and interface designs work on the assumption that all online users are adults. As it stands, we are building an Internet that cannot distinguish a child from an adult. Children are able to use services not targeted to them but rather adults and many site and service providers seem to be unaware of or negligent of their status. Protection of children online is highly controversial because there is an absence of reliable means of age-verification – knowing whether a user is a child or not, therefore restrictions are posed onto adult freedoms, instead.

In the age of Big Data, we have to expect that the online industry should and could now know who is a child. While some in the industry are stepping up to the responsibilities, many are still not admitting to knowing or does not wish to know this. So how can we build an Internet that also incorporates children’s pathways and experiences online? It may seem obvious but providers of online content and services need to do more – by presenting varied, imaginative and yet child-friendly resources to equip them with the literacies required to navigate and evaluate the demands and norms of the online environment.

Recommended further reading:
Net Neutrality: Explore the bills, court cases and disagreements that led up to today

4. We are tempted to generalise all children, to assume similar risks and opportunities of children’s digital lives.

baby girl with computer laptop and mobile phone
Child development – each child is different

When more skills are obtained by children, the more online opportunities they enjoy, the more risk of harm. As internet usage increases, greater efforts are required to manage those risks.

There is no one size fits all approach to dealing with child protection online, without restricting opportunities such as the ability to explore, experiment and test boundaries – to access knowledge, to communicate and to develop their skills. But there are cultural and geographical differences, both in relation to constructs of childhood and the perception of what are appropriate or acceptable practices. When it comes to content, and more specifically “inappropriate content”, a population of children is not homogeneous. Each child is different – different ages, education, language, culture, religion, maturity, experiences, interests, etc. – and individual children change rapidly as they mature and develop.

So, we need to think more deeply before making Internet policies merely based upon generalisations about children. It is required of us to engage with a diversity of views and approaches in order to address key Internet issues. There is a need to re-configure children’s pathways by and through which they engage in the world – with increasing access to the world through the Internet. Especially now there is much visibility accorded to children’s conversations, intimacies, aggression and curiousity, much of which was previously under the radar, we need to design frameworks that give them control when it matters – over their identity, privacy, expression and reputation.

Internet access and content is too becoming increasingly commercialised and stakeholders with commercial interests need to better understand how immersive online environments affect children’s critical understanding of advertising. Children may come across advertising targeted at adults simply because the ad space was made available within sites to third-party ad networks who is only responsible for filling that inventory. The role children used in e-commerce tactics also requires more attention. Children can be exposed to in-app game advertising which may encourage them to buy extra game features when playing, to receive ads in return for a service, or charge for premium services. The interaction and communication between children also requires comprehension. Children are more vulnerable to send personal information which may violate data protection rules or put themselves at risk of personal information being collected by spammers or being taken through to inappropriate websites.

The evidence only demonstrates in the state of play, we do not have the safeguards in place. However knowing what is best doesn’t necessarily persuade the existing stakeholder entities to do the right thing. We need to strengthen the capabilities of all involved in digital interventions. Online governance is a multi-stakeholder domain – not just a responsibility of the State.  Network providers and providers of social network and online services also have a role to play.

Take action today.

The Internet changes so rapidly that laws and regulation are unlikely to be able to keep up. However, it is in all of our interests to create a better Internet for children. We all share the culture we are creating and it is our responsibility to prepare children for safely living in the digital world we have created. Because no laws or parental-control software can protect better than developing children’s good sense about safety and relationships. In the end, it is about preserving our future, our humanity, where children become good citizens in a new world where their digital footprints will continue to wander and persist.

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