OPINION: Protecting the digital rights of children, young adults

by Dr. Stefan Germann | @GermannStefan | Fondation Botnar
Tuesday, 24 May 2022 09:31 GMT

Children attend an event for students to learn to write computer code at the Apple store in the Manhattan borough of New York December 9, 2015. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Tech executives and governments do not protect children’s rights in online spaces adequately, and while 90% of children and young adults live in low- and middle-income countries, most research on how digital tech is impacting youth has focused on the global north.

Dr. Stefan Germann is the chief executive officer of Fondation Botnar.

Today, over 40% of the global population is under the age of 25. That means that nearly half the world’s population has never known a world without the internet. As the first digital generation, children and young people’s human rights are intertwined with the online world like never before. But while digital platforms such as mobile apps and social media platforms offer diverse and exciting opportunities for children and young people to connect, learn and form their identities, flaws in how technology is designed and regulated are leaving them vulnerable, and their rights unprotected.

Ongoing online violations of human rights have serious, real-life consequences: the data of children and young adults are being collected by social media platforms and often sold to companies without their knowledge and consent. Online abuse and harassment are threatening their mental health, and privacy infringements are undermining their safety.

It has been over 30 years since the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted, but the world has failed to carry its commitments into the digital space. Tech executives and governments do not protect children’s rights in online spaces in the same way that they would in the physical world, and there are huge variations in regulation globally.

Urgent action is needed to right these wrongs. We need to put in place effective regulation that ensures the online safety and rights of children and young adults. And most importantly, we need to do this in partnership with young people, ensuring that their voices are at the forefront of the movement for change. There also needs to be an effort to understand this issue from a global perspective: 90% of children and young adults live in low- and middle-income countries, but most research on how digital tech is impacting youth has focused on the global north.

With an aim to correct this imbalance, Fondation Botnar has partnered with Amnesty International to launch an ambitious six-year programme called RIGHTS Click. With an investment of £8.5 million, it is one of the largest global programmes of its kind and will work to enable children and young people to co-create research, policies and campaigns that protect their rights in the digital world – as well as their health and wellbeing. An example of this is the Digital Disruptors project that aims to empower young people to design and deliver their own, impactful, creative campaigns.

The first phase of the programme in Argentina, Kenya, the Philippines and Ukraine will undertake research to better understand the challenges and provide evidence-based policy recommendations. Building on this research, the second phase will work to build awareness of digital risks among children and young people, empower them to realise their digital rights and ensure their voices are heard by policymakers and technology companies.

Importantly, the programme will work with children and young people to hold Big Tech to account through Amnesty International’s Silicon Valley Initiative that engages with large tech companies such as Meta and Twitter, and works to hold these companies accountable for their policies. For example, Amnesty’s Twitter Scorecard tracks Twitter’s progress in addressing violence and abuse against women online. By leveraging this initiative as part of RIGHTS Click, we can engage Big Tech to ensure that their platforms are fit for the future.

Our vision is a world where online platforms and other digital technologies are safe, supportive spaces for children and young people to realise their rights. We have so much to gain by creating a safer, fairer online world. By acting now, we can ensure that the use of digital technology does not undermine the rights of our youth but is instead the key to a brighter and more equal future.