The Digital Age and Children’s Rights

In this day and age, it s crucial for every one to be techno savvy or rather have the digital literacy to be able to maneuver through their daily activities whether it’s for educational, formal or informal purposes. Technology revolution has led to the ever evolving internet super highway creating an incredible outreach and connectivity to the wider community.

Educating and empowering people on the use of technology helps make informed and rights-based choices for younger and future generations which is crucial. We cannot fall short in praising the advantages of technology especially the internet however, it calls us to be on our feet to analyze and hypothesize its impact on children.

The rapid evolution of digital technologies eg. AI, Biometric Recognition systems and Algorithmic Information Silos have greatly shifted the dynamics in our approaches at home, classrooms and on the multimedia platforms. But with all these shifts, is the best interest of the child considered? How does technology shape the minds and behaviors of the coming generations?

Children are seldom considered as target users when the latest and greatest technologies are developed, but in many cases they become target subjects. Undeniably, we have to take a deep dive into just how frequent children are exposed to these futuristic, and sometimes problematic, technological developments and investigate what that means for a vulnerable group that may not fully understand the implications it has in their well-being.

Furthermore, there is a wide knowledge gap in relation to children’s rights and technology, but there is a great disconnect between the users and the experts. Everyone needs to be well informed about the negative and positive impacts of technology to be able to protect children while creating a more informed debate on critical next steps for how we choose to shape the future of our society.

It is paramount that children are given the freedom to express themselves and the rights are protected at all cost. “Nothing about us without us.” We need to better understand children’s lives online, and strongly advocate in ensuring that children and youths have a seat at the table when it comes to decision making.

We all have a duty to maximize the opportunities that technology can create for learning; new connections and creativity as well as mitigate on the risks and potential harms that can come from unfinished and unpopular digital tools, devices and algorithms.

One fact is that, the internet was not  invented with children in mind,  and although it is now estimated that around  one third of internet users are children,  most platforms used by children are  still designed primarily for adults.

Technological advancement has led to the development of artificial intelligence and machine learning. AI refers to machines which are fed lots of data about people including children, and the machine finds patterns using that  data based on correlations between different  things that can be used to predict  future outcomes or to make decisions. Sometimes people also program  the AI with rules to follow. But the questions that lingers is, how safe are children under these programs? Are their rights protected and considered when they acquire data about them or will the information collected about them endanger their wellbeing as children?

Notably, Children’s data is largely different  to adults’ data as children are more vulnerable than adults and since data  collected about children over their lifetime can have as yet unknown impacts on their futures. There have been groups of children who are less represented than others in these data sets, can lead to issues related to exclusion.

For example, AI  technology may be fed data about child offenders  including their personal characteristics such  as ethnicity, neighborhood, school attended,  and family income level. The AI may then conclude  that children from certain groups are more likely  to commit crimes, whereas the truth is that those  children are not more likely to commit crimes,  but they have been historically over-policed  and subjected to discriminatory judicial systems which are more likely to find them guilty.

Despite all the great potential benefit technology has brought us there are negative  elements for societies, including children  such as : surveillance of children by  governments, labelling them as potential  criminals, religious extremists, or political  dissidents from an early age, surveillance of  children by the private sector, can result to targeted advertising on children,  online harms such as child sexual abuse and  exploitation, cyberbullying, misinformation, misuse of AI resulting in a perpetuation  of discrimination and inequality.

In recent times especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, we have witnessed inequalities; Access to information and participating in online  discussions has been an issue for children who do not have access to WIFI, or to devices, which  is the case for many children in the world, and has made children who are  already isolated or living in poverty become even more excluded from society.

Unequal access to the internet and technology can result in  many of children’s rights being violated such as their right to education,  health, and participation. While technology is becoming more pervasive for many, it is certainly not equally accessible for all. This evidently brings out the question of digital divide in the continent.

Young people’s lives are increasingly mediated by information and communication technologies at home, at school and in the community. Yet little research has addressed inequalities in children and young people’s access to the internet:

In these regard, we have to ensure everyone abides to the CRC on the protection of children’s wellbeing:

  • CSO should follow up with governments to ensure are held accountable in implementing the Convention.
  • We all have a duty to create awareness and sensitize the community about the positive and negative outcomes of the technology.
  • Technology companies should also ensure that  their products and services protect and support children’s rights. This means that they have to  both make sure that their platforms are safe for  children and do no harm, but also they should take  positive steps to make children’s lives better  such as by helping to promote access to  the internet and devices, or by producing  quality educational content and innovative  tools to promote equality and inclusion.
  • Parents and teachers are also very important  in guiding their children to use technology  productively and often in fun ways too.
UNICEF published a Data Governance  for Children manifesto which calls for a global  set of rules that apply to technology  companies, governments, and nonprofits  who collect children’s data around the world.  The manifesto calls for a global set of rules  because currently there are several different  competing laws coming from different countries,  which makes it difficult for companies  to operate across different jurisdictions  and the laws that dominate tend to be from  the countries with the biggest economies.  At the moment there is competition  between data protection laws from the US,  Europe, and China because these are  the biggest market forces in the world.  The manifesto calls for a global governance  framework to be grounded in the international  children’s rights laws that have already  been ratified by most countries of the world,  to ensure that children’s rights are fully  protected equally everywhere in the digital age.

Children’s interactions with technology may be direct or indirect. There is often a lot of emphasis placed on direct consumption of digital technology by children. It is acknowledged however that there is a similarly high risk of exposing children to violations of their rights through the actions of other people or entities, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

The African region, in particular, has a complex context for the regulation of children’s access to digital technology. Thus, we should work towards ensuring that laws and policies are synergized and harmonized for the best interest of the child. 

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