Why we need an urgent look at children’s rights online

iRights is a new civil society initiative that provides a framework of five simple principles for how we should engage with children and young people (under 18s) in the digital world. November 20th 2014 saw the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). On the day of the UNCRC’s commemoration, the House of Lords held a debate, led by iRights founder Baroness Kidron, which sought to interrogate how the UNCRC was being delivered in the digital world. In her introductory remarks Baroness Kidron said,

“The UNCRC is a legally binding international agreement that carefully balances the necessity for children to be the guardians of their own interests alongside our need to act as responsible guardians of them. The 54 articles of the Convention cover a complex matrix of scenarios but combined they stipulate that; ‘the best interests of the child must be the primary consideration in all actions concerning children’.”

Technological revolution

In March 1989, also, 25 years ago, Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal for the World Wide Web gave birth to a technological revolution, which changed immeasurably almost every aspect of a young person’s life. While the experience of childhood has been revolutionised by technology, the necessity for children to be guardians of their own interests and our need to be responsible guardians of them remains exactly the same as it was 25 years ago.

Today’s debate does not seek to establish whether web-based technologies are good or bad. My own view is that these technologies bring with them unparalleled opportunity, breathtaking imagination and the tantalising promise of a better world. But any technology that brings about such fundamental change in the way we behave, the way we do business and the way we communicate is bound to present challenges. In the case of the two momentous events of 25 years ago, they present some demanding contradictions. The digital world is a world of infinite possibility, but it was not designed with children in mind.

House of Lords debate

The Lords’ debate covered many of the UNCRC’s 54 articles and saw contributions from Baroness Lane-Fox who made an excellent case for sophisticated digital literacy, The Lord Bishop of Worcester who referred to the technology as ‘morally neutral’ and Baroness King who, speaking on behalf of the opposition, said;

“On the one hand we need to prevent the worst excesses and online abuse…On the second part, educating children to be critical and self-aware, we need to push digital literacy up the political agenda. I think that the iRights agenda is a fantastic place to start, with its five key principles”.

It was also the occasion of the maiden speech of the Prime Minister’s Digital Advisor, Baroness Shields, in which she declared her support for iRights:

“I applaud the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for creating the iRights initiative, and her passion and determination to protect the rights of young people in this digital world. We are on this quest together. I am confident that the work that she is doing will make a great impact on empowering young people and encouraging them to make better and more informed choices.”

The Convention demands a rounded life for children including freedom of expression, freedom of association, privacy, freedom from all forms of mental and physical abuse, the right to health, the right to education and rest leisure and participation.  In the 21st century many of these rights have online or digital applications.

Action agreed by Government

The Government Minister, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, in his closing remarks, warmly welcomed this rights, responsibilities and resilience agenda and invited iRights to meet with officials and with UKCISS.  Lord Bourne said;

“I am keen that this should move forward positively. The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, plays a key role in iRights, while as trustees so too do the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, and my noble friend Lady Shields, and I think that we can build on that.”

The five iRights

At iRights, we firmly believe that it is time to consider the way in which we design and deliver digital technology for children and young people – and to put them at the centre of our concern and thinking by following both in spirit and the letter of the UNCRC’s stipulation that; ‘the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration … In all actions concerning children’. “

iRights is a key tool in making a better net for young people. The five rights are:

1. The right to remove
2. ​The right to know
3. The right to safety and support
4. The right to make informed and conscious choices
5. The right to digital literacy

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