Protecting children’s rights in a digital world
World Children's Day
Thirty-three years ago today, world leaders came together to adopt the Convention on the Rights of the Child – a global affirmation that children’s rights are human rights, equally deserving of protection.
The visionary leaders who drafted the Convention in 1989 could not have known how radically childhood was about to be transformed by digital technology and the internet. But they laid a foundation that can help guide us in an increasingly digital world.
Around the world, children are going online earlier and staying online for longer. Between 2010 and 2020, the time children spend online almost doubled in many countries. The COVID-19 pandemic sparked a steep rise in children’s screen time, with European children spending an estimated 6 to 7.5 hours per day online. Recent research shows that the majority of children with smartphones report that they use them “almost all the time” to connect, especially on social media.
The benefits of this profound shift are clear – expanding access to education, entertainment, and opportunity. But so are the risks.
Globally, 1 in 3 children report experiencing online bullying. In 2020, 33 per cent of girls and 20 per cent of boys in Europe reported experiencing disturbing content online at least once a month. In parts of Africa and Asia, recent research shows that between 1 and 20 per cent of children experienced at least one incident of online sexual exploitation or abuse between 2020 and 2021..
Children also are increasingly exposed to embedded and invisible technologies, including algorithms, predictive analytics systems, and even location trackers – potentially violating their right to privacy, and worse.
Ironically, despite the ubiquity of digital technology, millions of children still lack access to the benefits of the internet. In an increasingly digital economy, that impact of that disparity will also increase if we don’t take steps to address it now.
Whoever they are and wherever they are from, every child has an equal right to be safe and included. And all children deserve the chance to thrive in a digital environment in which those rights are respected and protected. This is a cornerstone of the European Commission’s proposal for a Declaration on European Digital Rights and Principles, presented earlier this year.
The EU’s recent adoption of the Digital Services Actis also a milestone in this regard. By setting strict requirements for digital platforms to protect minors online, and by banning advertising and potentially harmful algorithmic content that targets children, it will help create a safer digital space.
Similarly, the new Better Internet for Kids Strategy, the digital arm of the EU’s Strategy on the Rights of the Child, will help ensure that every child in Europe is protected, empowered, and respected online. Under this strategy, the European Commission is launching the development of a Code of Conduct for the age-appropriate design of digital products and services and will involve children in the development process. It will also promote effective age verification tools and help countries exchange good practices for media literacy education.
Protecting children online and increasing their access to digital learning and other opportunities is also a strong focus of UNICEF’s work all over the world, from partnering with governments to develop policies and legal frameworks like that of the EU, to supporting ministries of education to promote children digital-literacy and online-safety skills, to working hand in hand with industry leaders to find innovative solutions that keep kids safe online.
Through programmes like Global Kids Online and projects like Disrupting Harm, UNICEF is also helping build the evidence base on children’s digital rights to help us understand how the digital transformation of society is influencing children’s lives and wellbeing.
UNICEF is also working with partners in government and the tech industry to connect every child to digital learning. For example, Giga is leveraging UNICEF’s experience in education and procurement, ITU’s expertise in regulation and policy, and the private sector’s ability to apply tech solutions at pace to connect every school in the world to the internet. And The Learning Passport, a digital learning platform which was launched in 2018 to reach displaced children, now serves more than 2 million children in 17 countries.
Everyone has a stake in this. That is why policymakers, industry leaders, educators, parents, and children and young people came together in late October at the Safer Internet Forum in Brussels to discuss how we can make the internet a better place for children.
Empowerment is key. We need to teach children -- and their parents, carers, and teachers -- how to identify online risks, to understand what is real and what is fake, and how to make the most of digital opportunities. Safe Internet Centers all over Europe are helping do just this, including by providing a platform for young people to voice their concerns and perspectives. And every country should consider building similar digital support networks.
Online protection, digital empowerment, and digital inclusion are global challenges. By joining forces, we can address these issues more effectively and efficiently. Our goal must be nothing less than a safe, secure, and trusted digital space as a cornerstone of our digital society – for every child and for everyone, everywhere.