Protecting children in the digital age

How can we give children meaningful access to digital technologies while respecting and protecting their rights? Banner image: Shutterstock/chanchai duangdoosan
Protecting children in the digital age

This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders  from around the world and all parts of society  address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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As any parent or caregiver will attest, children’s lives are increasingly intertwined with the digital world. The distinction between “online” and “offline” that existed for previous generations does not remain for many children today. With the digitisation of so many essential services, children more and more have no choice but to engage with the digital environment as part of their daily lives. Their digital footprints can start even before birth with ultrasound photos and due dates shared on social media.

The consequences of this shift can be examined in the context of children’s rights set out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child—the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history. In March this year, the Committee on the Rights of the Child released a General Comment to elaborate on how governments should protect children’s rights regarding the digital environment.

In General Comment No. 25, the Committee on the Rights of the Child emphasises that meaningful access to digital technologies can support children to realise the full range of their civil, political, cultural, economic and social rights. This includes children’s rights to access information from a diversity of sources; freedom of expression; freedom of association and peaceful assembly; privacy; education; and protection from violence and exploitation.

Find out more about the OECD's Child Well-Being Portal and read the OECD Innovation Blog

Find out more about the OECD's Child Well-Being Portal and read the OECD Innovation BlogFind out more about the OECD's Child Well-Being Portal and read the OECD Innovation Blog

Digital access and digital skills are thus vital for every child. Increasingly, and as made stark during the pandemic, children who are not connected risk exclusion and disadvantage. In General Comment No. 25, the Committee on the Rights of the Child are clear that “if digital inclusion is not achieved, existing inequalities are likely to increase, and new ones may arise” (para 4).

Yet there are also significant risks for children in the digital environment. They include sexual exploitation and abuse, cyberaggression and harassment, incitement to suicide or life-threatening activities, exposure to harmful content, privacy violations and exploitative digital marketing practices.

These risks have the potential seriously harm children. However, it is important to remember that not all children encounter significant risks online; and that for those who do, not all of them translate into actual harms. There is a difference between “risk” and “harm”. Early research findings from some studies suggest that experience of harm related to online activity is often linked to other vulnerabilities in children’s lives. There remains work to do to explore exactly how these vulnerabilities interact.

More on the Forum Network: "Can children believe in us to invest in mental health?" by Mieke Schuurman, Senior Policy Advisor, Eurochild

 In any case, it is clear that the protection of children in the digital age requires vigilant effort across governments, the private sector and the wider community. In identifying and mitigating those risks that may cause harm to children, everyone has a role to play.

The role of industry is crucial. Businesses have a responsibility to respect children’s rights through their products and services and should ensure child safety in all their activities. The Committee on the Rights of the Child calls for governments to require businesses that affect children’s rights in the digital environment to “implement regulatory frameworks, industry codes and terms of services that adhere to the highest standards of ethics, privacy and safety in relation to the design, engineering, development, operation, distribution and marketing of their products and services” (General Comment No. 25, para 39). Businesses should also provide accessible and timely information and advice to support children’s safe use of technology.

We must also recognise children and young people as agents of change. There are growing examples of children innovating to create safe online spaces, as well as collaboration with children to inform and co-create new technologies. At a minimum, children should be equipped with the information and skills they need to navigate the digital environment safely, in line with their evolving capacities.

More than ever, parents and caregivers are at the forefront of keeping their children safe online. Some research shows that children with parents who restrict them from using digital technology are less likely to encounter something online that upsets them. However, they are also less likely to be taking advantage of the many positive activities available online and less likely to develop digital skills, such as critical thinking and privacy skills. When parents show positive or supportive involvement in children’s online activity, those children are more likely to engage in a wider variety of activities and have stronger digital skills.

Read the full OECD report on Educating 21st Century Children: Emotional Well-being in the Digital AgeRead the full OECD report on Educating 21st Century Children: Emotional Well-being in the Digital Age

Importantly, while helping children navigate the digital environment, parents and caregivers need to be alert to online risks and any signs of distress that may emerge. One of the most important things that a parent or caregiver can do is to ensure open discussion with their children on how and with whom they are communicating online. In line with children’s developmental stage, parents and caregivers should also speak with their children about healthy relationships, including the inevitable technological dimensions. Children should feel confident about telling a trusted adult immediately if anything distressing or inappropriate occurs.

Schools also have an important role to play in keeping children safe. They not only have a responsibility to create a safe learning environment, but also can identify students who are suffering or at risk of harm and take appropriate action. Schools can also promote and support safe and positive online behaviour for children. There is also a need for schools to update safeguarding standards and policies to reflect digital dimensions and the new realities for children who may be learning at home due to the pandemic. This includes guidance for teachers on identifying and reporting any suspected child abuse or neglect of remote learners.

In accordance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, national governments hold the primary accountability for the protection of children. In keeping children safe from harm online, UNICEF recommends a comprehensive national response with reference to frameworks such as the WePROTECT Global Alliance Model National Response.

This digital environment is rapidly changing and challenging the child protection landscape. With increasing evidence, investment and collaboration, we can better identify challenges and deliver interventions to ensure protection and inspire possibilities for every child.

Rewatch the OECD Directorate for Education and Skills webinar: Ask an expert: How can we help children develop their digital skills? 

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