5 resolutions for online safety 2020

Moving away from surveillance and control and toward a child rights framework honored all over the world

For 20 years now, all around the world, governments, child advocacy groups, corporations, schools and parents have actually been trying to uphold children’s rights of protection by ignoring their participation rights online (those of expression, conscience, participation, association, access to information and being consulted on matters that concern them). I’m referring to two of the three categories of rights enshrined in the 30-year-old UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the third category being their rights of provision.

Until now. There is growing awareness of how facile, fear-driven and unethical that old approach is. We’re seeing more and more signs that 2020 will be the year we stop defaulting to surveillance and control and start getting creative about upholding the full range of our children’s rights in balance.

Signs of momentum include…

  • The Committee on the Rights of the Child — the UN body that monitors implementation of the Convention worldwide, will shortly issue a General Comment on children’s digital rights. That’s a big deal because this will be the first such statement from the Committee about the digital part of their lives and rights, the Committee’s reach is global, and general comments are the Committee’s authoritative interpretation of what’s expected of states that have ratified the Convention (so far every country on the planet except the United States).
  • Young activists exercising their rights of participation have ever-increasing visibility and support. An obvious example is Greta Thunberg as Time’s Person of the Year; the BBC offers many more in this short piece and this longer one. Another is 12-year-old US activist Olivia Van Ledtje, who co-authored Spark Change, published this past fall.
  • The 16 year-old NGO KidsRights just launched a “new non-political, non-religious digital ‘state’ that aims to transcend national borders and empower the global youth community.”
  • The UK government is in the process of developing an ambitious “age appropriate design code” for digital providers, a process being watched by other countries. Scholars Mariya Stoilova and Sonia Livingstone, one of the consultants to that project, detail some of the challenges it faces here, including “the transnational nature of the Internet.”
  • Australia’s eSafety Commissioner’s Office offered an important model for consulting youth in the development of a program designed to benefit them — in the creation of its “Safety by Design” program, unveiled last year.
  • More and more scholarship grounding and calling for rights-based approaches that reject the “control paradigm” that has dominated youth digital safety, inclusion and citizenship practices worldwide — see the just-released Youth in Digital Society: Control Shift (with more examples of such scholarship in my review).
  • Mainstream news reporters are beginning to write about youth digital rights even in my own country, the only one that hasn’t ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child! See NPR’s Anya Kamenetz at TechnologyReview.com.

5 proposed resolutions for 2020

To keep the momentum going, might the youth Internet safety field consider four resolutions? Or think of them as key best practices for research-grounded safety and citizenship education:

  1. Stop conflating safety and citizenship. An example of this confusion was reflected in a recent New York Times article about “how to avoid the murky waters of trolldom.” Though there’s some good advice on that (you’ll find clearer, more succinct advice in “Counterspeech DOs and DON’Ts,” recently developed by a group of Internet user advocates), the article quotes educators who are blending safety and citizenship. They frame the latter as responsible tech use or “how we treat each other online,” which limits citizenship — focusing it on what are called “negative freedoms” (freedom “from”) and ignoring the positive, self-actualizing ones (freedom “to”) that honor participation rights and support civic engagement and change making. How is it so easy for us adults to forget about the participation part of (digital) citizenship, knowing that it’s a developmental imperative for children to find their place in the world?
  2. Wrap digital safety and citizenship in a child rights framework, where scholarship says it belongs (more details on this here).
  3. Consult the citizens, the intended beneficiaries of this work, as outlined by the CRC. The scholars behind Control Shift prescribe partnering with youth to make education in digital safety, citizenship and inclusion effective — not only to make it relevant to them but also to ground it in their digital practices rather than our assumptions.
  4. Map citizenship ed to citizen development. Make sure it supports the developmental imperatives of young people, such as identity exploration and finding their place in the world. Design their education so that it’s for their benefit (self- and citizen-actualization), not adults’ benefit (youth compliance and behavior management).
  5. Ground citizenship and safety in the 3 literacies of the digital age: media literacy, digital literacy and social literacy (in the US, often referred to as social-emotional learning, or SEL). Media literacy has long been taught as foundational to good citizenship. “Media literacy empowers people to be critical thinkers and makers, effective communicators and active citizens,” according to the National Association for Media Literacy Education. So, by definition, effective citizenship in today’s very social and digital media environment has social literacy and digital literacy pillars as well.

Cross-sectoral is essential

We don’t yet know if the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s forthcoming General Comment will go so far as to call for what some child rights activists are advocating: a child-friendly “re-design of the online environment,” the ambitious goal of the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office. But some of the “re-design” elements people advising the ICO and the UN Committee are calling for include 1) not using features that manipulate kids or make sites and apps sticky (think recommendation engines, infinite scrolling, video autoplay, maybe even clickbait), 2) not allowing youth to give out their physical location and 3) allowing minors to delete their data from a company’s servers. They’re also calling on the industry to explain what’s done with their data in “child-friendly language” and to give youth access to mental health resources.

I’m a fan of many of these, of course, but I don’t believe they will be attained anytime soon strictly through regulation or public pressure. It’s only logical that the re-design of something needs to include the designers. We can’t know if all these proposed design elements are feasible without understanding the technology (through those who develop it) and the “internal logics” of the industry, described by scholars at HBR.org in the context of ethics. The industry can’t reach those design goals and avoid unintended consequences without the input of children, caregivers, educators and researchers. And policymakers can’t regulate without understanding both constituents’ and providers’ perspectives and constraints. So I hope that all stakeholders can employ what Harvard scholar Sheila Jasanoff calls the “technologies of humility,” engaging all stakeholders in this process — including youth — as “active, imaginative agent[s], as well as source[s] of knowledge, insight and memory” in the coming decade.

References & links

Anne Collier is founder and executive director of The Net Safety Collaborative, a US-based nonprofit organization. She has been writing about youth and digital media at NetFamilyNews.org since before there were blogs (1997) and advising tech companies since 2009 (full-length bio here).

Youth advocate; blogger, NetFamilyNews.org; founder, The Net Safety Collaborative

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