In most countries – the UK included – when it comes to children every decent human being instinctively tries to do the right thing because, well,they’re children. Moreover we don’t discriminate between children. Our innate sense of fairness extends to every single child. It’s not a matter of numbers.
Now I am not naïve. I fully understand why it is, notwithstanding any universalist language, institutions tend to focus on or prioritise issues which affect larger groups. One hopes that eventually they will get round to dealing with everyone but at any rate to begin with numbers plainly matter.
Unbelievably (and perhaps I am being too charitable here) several key internet institutions are still in the “beginning with” phase. However, last week a report came out which should change that forever and also establish an urgent, empirically-based call to action at least in respect of the position of children as internet users.
One in Three: Internet Governance and Children’s Rights in my view is a work of the utmost importance. I count myself lucky to have been asked to be a co-author but the bulk of the credit for the research and the intellectual leadership must go to Professor Sonia Livingstone of the LSE and Jasmina Byrne of UNICEF’s global research centre, Innocenti plus the host of researchers around the world who rallied to their banner and helped shape the final output, published by Chatham House and the Global Commission on Internet Governance.
Developed and developing worlds
In many of the countries of the developed world we have known for some time exactly how many legal minors are internet users . We have known this because the data are reliably collected, analysed and regularly published. In the UK it is just over 1 in 5 of all internet users and in the EU as a whole it is just under 1 in 5. But what about further afield? The picture is very patchy , or it was until now. 1 in 3 is a peer reviewed report which sets out its methodology and concludes, as the title suggests, that one in three of all internet users on the planet are under the age of 18. In parts of the developing world this rises to almost one in two.
No need for anecdotes
Of course for some time we have pretty much known, maybe intuitively or anecdotally that minors have a huge presence online but even so I think confirmation of these proportions will come as something of a surprise to lots of actors on the internet stage. And let’s not forget that in the internet space there is a constant demand for and a premium placed on “evidence based policy-making”. Well now we have the evidence. Big time.
A place for children
Thus, while there is no question the internet’s achievements are spectacular, that it has changed the world’s economy, has changed the way we do politics and hold governments to account, made it possible for us to find cheap flights and get our groceries delivered it is also a major medium for children. Policy makers and companies need to fix that prosaic but profound fact firmly in their minds whenever they talk about the future of the internet or its governance.
Just think: in any other area of human activity where it was known and accepted that one in three of all participants were legal minors the environment would be designed with that in mind. Yet the internet is not.
Every publisher of online content or online service provider needs to reflect on the fact that what they are about to do – publish or provide – is going into a space where 1 in 3 of everyone who might confront it is a minor. Kids are everywhere. Simply shifting the responsibility for dealing with the consequences of this to parents or teachers (or law enforcement for that matter) is close to being a wilful evasion when we know that in a great many parts of the world that is a million miles away from being realistic in any meaningful way.
As Sonia Livingstone puts it
I find it astonishing how often policymakers debate internet governance as if all users were adults or, failing that, carefully protected by informed parents. This report argues against an age-generic or age-blind approach to internet provision and governance, drawing on evidence that a substantial minority of internet users are minors and that many encounter risk unsupported.
It’s all about rights
Minors share all of the human rights enjoyed by adults but in addition they have a layer of additional rights which are unique to them. Take education as an example. I think we are very nearly at the point where ready and convenient access to the internet will be seen as being integral to and inseparable from it. That’s a big conceptual leap forward but the plain fact is that already, today, a child without internet access is a child at a disadvantage, measured either in relation to their peers in their own country or internationally. And a country with too many children suffering from such a disadvantage is a country that is handicapped in ways which will have long term consequences for every one of its citizens.
But access must go hand in hand with improved digital literacy and connect with the wider range of children’s rights. As my colleague Jasmina Byrne put it
Implementation of child rights in the digital age requires not only adherence to human rights and values, but also empowerment and participation of child users in ways which foster their creativity, innovation and societal engagement.”