Advancing children’s rights in the digital age
Advancing children’s rights in the digital age is one of the main areas where academia should join forces with practitioners to translate their rights and agency into children’s lives.
An important advancement in the field of children’s rights happened in March this year, when the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC committee), the UN body in charge of the basic rights of all children, issued a long-awaited General Comment (No. 25) on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment. This important move is also a particularly timely one, as the past year has seen a significant acceleration in global digitalization, due in part to mobility restrictions associated with the pandemic.
While protecting children from the digital world has been a matter of attention for years, and restrictive policies and laws have been set to limit access to technology for children below a certain age, the pandemic made us realize our heavy reliance on digital technology in every aspect of our lives. Children are not immune from this, and in 2020 and 2021, we have seen a shift towards the provision of crucial services for children online, be it education, justice, psycho-social support, or even child protection. Guidance was developed by governments and humanitarian actors to ensure safety in the provision of the various services when this delivery happens online. In this context, the General Comment No. 25 has brought a comprehensive, child-centered view in addressing all aspects of children rights in a digital environment. The document presents all rights stipulated in the CRC covering the rights to protection, provision and particularly participation, while bringing forward the important notions of privacy and confidentiality. The document also focuses on duties of the digital business sector in relation to children’s rights, especially when data about children comes into play. This is not the only novelty of this General Comment: the approach itself is interesting, as the Committee ensured that children views were considered by means of consultations with 709 children and young people from 28 countries. Views expressed by children were incorporated under the different provisions of the document, making it a strong child-centered advocacy tool to advance children’s rights in a digital environment.
For Dr Roberta Ruggiero: “General Comment No. 25 creates a foundation for policies implementation that would empower children's use of digital technology to further realize their rights.” This General Comment provides a framework to states, child right advocate and other actors to better address children rights in the digital environment. It fosters a shift from a restrictive and protective approach, towards one implementing laws, policies and services that empowers children in their use of digital technology.
Moreover, for Dr Ruggiero: “Academia has also a central role to play in analyzing policies and practices in light of theories in the children right and childhood field to provide evidence on best practices in the application of the framework defined by the General Comment No. 25. This would ensure that practices empower children to have safe access to a medium that has a key role today in their life and in the expression of their agency.
Global warming and migration: the other priorities
Achievements in children’s rights in the digital environment should not divert the attention from other important issues children are struggling with today. The impact of global warming is being felt all over the world, and children in the Global South are the most affected by extreme weather conditions such as draught and floods and their impact on housing, food security and livelihood. In addition, pollution, and specifically air pollution, impacts their health and everyday life. The Friday for Future movement, initiated by children and young people, is taking a global stance to include the environment as a priority on governments’ agendas. Digital technology is playing an important role in that aspect whereas children are using social media to take part and contribute to the environmental movements.
Moreover, migration continues to impact children’s rights as countries in the Global North are tightening entry regulations and promulgating stricter legal constraints on movement. More restrictions mean more risks for children, be it in countries impacted by economic crisis, conflicts, and disasters, or during their journey to safety. Discrimination, deprivation of liberty and threat of forced return add to this gloomy picture. Digital technologies are important in this context as well as they help migrant children to connect with their loved ones. They also allow to raise awareness on the issue of migration and its root causes and states practices that go against human and children rights.
The challenge of considering children as citizens
While children’s participation remain mainly tokenistic and their social and political representation is marginalized by a traditional paternalistic protectionist school of thought discourse portraying them as incapable and lacking competencies compared to adults. It is also worth noting that they continue to be disempowered by this very discourse and confronted with poverty, violence, exploitation, and denial of essential services. Several topics of concern related to children (particularly when it comes to gender, disabilities, refugees, LGBTQI rights) are all too often discounted, notably when conservative cultural practices prevail among organizations working on behalf of children. Denying children’s capacities and views or accusing them of being manipulated and unable to make a clear judgement, may lead to such shortcomings.
“Child saving movements have promised perfect, new societies that would be beneficial to children, their future citizens. However, while awaiting the realization of these ideals in the imperfect societies they are actually living in, children have to pay a price. Notwithstanding discourses on children’s rights that claim to consider children as active participants and holders of fundamental rights, they continue to be essentialized as vulnerable and innocent human beings with limited individual freedoms”, says Professor Karl Hanson from the University of Geneva.
“It is indeed time to act: not for the future of our children, but for their present; not to save them, but to empower them as competent and capable actors of our societies.” Prof. Karl Hanson TBC
Geneva - an international hub for children’s rights
The University of Geneva (UNIGE) is at the center of all these debates. Geneva is where the first Children’s Rights Declaration (the Geneva Declaration) was adopted in 1924. Almost a century later, UNIGE created the Interfaculty Center for Children’s Rights Studies (CCRS). The Center is a unique place where children’s rights are studied from an interdisciplinary perspective, stimulating theoretical and practical conversations centered around the child as a social actor and subject of rights. The flagship of the Center is its Master of Advanced Studies in Children’s Rights (MCR), built by D.h.c. Jean Zermatten, former member and chairperson of the CRC Committee. The program is embedded within the distinctive setting of Geneva, a city that played an international historical role in the advancement of the field of children rights and is today the main international hub for children’s rights with an extended network of child rights specialist and advocates: Geneva hosts the CRC along with major international non-governmental organizations and is also home to headquarters of major offices of United Nations agencies operating in favour of the dissemination and implementation of children’s rights worldwide such as UNICEF and the UNHCR. In this context, the Master provides access to the most recent research in the field through exchanges with scholars and experts coming from all over the world and to prominent children’s rights actors and stakeholders located in Geneva.
The Master of Advanced Studies in Children’s rights connects theory and practice through innovative learning methods. Students come from all around the word, from different educational backgrounds and experiences. This programme is designed for professionals who can contribute to the learning process by sharing their own practices and conducting high quality child-centered research. Academicians at the University of Geneva, are striving to position children’s agency at the center of the discourse. As such in academia like other fields the child agent needs to be considered as an actor with his own rights and as Hanson and Nieuwenhuys (2013) are highlighting: “shape with them the way to go in the translation of their rights into the daily realities”.
- CRC committee, General comment No. 25 on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment (UN doc. CRC/C/GC/25, 2021), para. 5.
- Hanson, K. (2016) Separate Childhood Laws and the Future of Society. In Law, Culture and the Humanities, Vol. 12(2), 195–205.
- Hanson, K. and Nieuwenhuys, O. (2013). Living rights, social justice, translations. In K. Hanson & O. Nieuwenhuys (Eds.) Reconceptualizing Children’s Rights in International Development. Living Rights, Social Justice, Translations (pp. 3-25), Cambridge: University Press
- Livingstone, S. & O’Neill, B. (2014) Children’s rights online: challenges, dilemmas and emerging directions. In S. van der Hof, B. van den Berg, and B. Schermer (Eds.), Minding Minors Wandering the Web: Regulating Online Child Safety (pp.19-38). Berlin: Springer
- The Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action, Technical Note: Protection of Children during the Coronavirus Pandemic, Version 2, May 2020
This article has also been published in the newSpecial magazine (september 2021 edition - p. 26-27)