March of 2021 was extremely effervescent for children's rights in the digital age. At European Union level, the European Commission has adopted a Communication to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on the EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child 2021 – 2024, which addresses, inter alia, children’s rights in the digital sector (EU Strategy). The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child adopted General Comment no. 25/2021 on children's rights in relation to the digital environment, and the OECD published a report analyzing how education was affected one year after the outbreak of the pandemic.
By the time almost our entire existence has gone online, the benefits of the virtual environment, that had been already recognized, have amplified and a whole range of new opportunities has emerged. To complement its existence with the experience offered by the virtual sphere, the humanity must pay a hidden price that consists, mainly, in the disclosure of a sheer amount of personal data. The experience of using new technologies could produce maximum benefits, by sharing as little personal data as possible and minimizing specific risks, whether adequate security measures and guarantees of confidentiality are adopted by the states. This paradoxical context, in which, on the one hand, the health crisis has radically changed the way we exercise our rights, both as adults and as children, restricting physical expression to a minimum, but strongly accelerating the transition to the online environment, is at the core of the discussions of the international organizations. They aim to adopt legal instruments governing the virtual environment and public policies that include the dissemination of digital education. This article aims to present the actions described in the EU Strategy, focusing on the digital sector, the international instruments that take into account children’s rights in the online environment and the main trends related to the approach of children’s rights in the digital age, agreed at a global level.
1. The EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child and the actions defined for the digital and information society
One of the objectives of the European Union is to protect and promote the rights of the child. This goal ensures equity and equality between children and aims to accelerate the green and digital transition by outlining key actions for each party involved. The EU Strategy is based on the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights; the actions defined by the EU Strategy are guided by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and are closely linked to Council of Europe standards on the rights of the child, as well as to its Strategy on the Rights of the Child (2016-2021).
To build the society of the future, the EU Strategy addresses six thematic areas, tackling issues such as: domestic violence, asylum procedures, distance learning, special needs, the situation of marginalized communities, healthcare, child-friendly justice, etc. The adoption of the EU Strategy has made it possible to bring together all new and existing EU legislative, policy and funding instruments concerning children’s rights within one comprehensive framework. The Commission’s Communication aims at promoting a new approach, reflecting current realities and placing children at the heart of all EU policies.
The aim of the EU Strategy is to define the guidelines for building the society of tomorrow, in a constantly changing world, to address persistent and emerging challenges, to take children’s concerns seriously.
In order to implement, monitor and evaluate the EU Strategy, but also to strengthen cooperation, by the end of 2021, the EU will set up the EU Network for Children’s Rights, which will be composed of national representatives, international and non-governmental organizations, children etc.
One of the topics addressed in the EU Strategy is how children exercise their recognized rights when surfing online and what measures need to be taken to better protect them. The Commission uses this framework to reaffirm the importance of the many opportunities that the digital environment and the use of new technologies offer to children, such as the development of play and creativity, learning, culturalisation, social activities, etc.
As well, the EU draws attention to the fact that an increased presence in the online environment, has as an implicit consequence which is the exposure to harmful or illegal content, sexual abuse, manipulation, online harassment etc.
Other issues identified in the EU Strategy as requiring increased concern from the authorities are the following:
• children’s physical and mental health (due to the fact that almost all aspects of life have moved online with the onset of the health crisis, the time spent in front of connected devices has increased greatly, which attracts attention deficit, vision problems, lower physical activity etc.);
• deepening digital inequalities due to lack of access to the internet and connected devices;
• the use of artificial intelligence (AI), which can affect privacy, security and safety;
• protection of personal data and privacy.
Among the measures established by the European Commission to combat the risks potentially affecting children in the online environment, the EU Strategy envisages the following:
• the opportunity for information and communication technology (ICT) companies to voluntarily report child sexual abuse to the authorities, insofar as these practices are legal;
• the presentation of a legislative proposal aimed at effectively combating online sexual abuse of children;
• the Commission’s proposal for a horizontal legal framework for AI will identify the use of high-risk AI systems that pose significant risks to fundamental rights, including those of children;
• supporting the protection of personal data and privacy through the "Youth Pledge for a Better Internet" and "Youth Call for Action" initiatives;
• continue to provide support, through the digital program, to the Safer Internet Centers and the "Better Internet for Kids" platform, in order to raise awareness of Internet harassment and capacity building, the recognition of false news and misinformation, as well as promoting healthy and responsible online behavior;
• promoting the prevention of internet harassment through the future "Pathways to School Success" initiative;
funding initiatives to support the acquisition of digital skills by all children through the Erasmus+ program.
Actions proposed at EU level:
• EU child participation platforms
• using child-friendly language
• conducting child-specific consultations for relevant future initiatives
• accelerating cooperation in some areas
• set up an expert group for creating supportive learning environments for groups at risk of underachievement and supporting well-being at school
• training of specialists
• legislative initiatives in areas such as combating violence against children and improving the functioning of child protection systems, child-friendly judicial proceedings
• promotion, allocation of funds and resources
Proposed actions at Member State level:
• providing adequate resources for the new mechanisms
• awareness campaigns and training activities
• creation of specialized networks
• development of alternative solutions
• strengthening cross-border cooperation
Actions proposed to ICT companies:
• ensuring children’s rights, including respect for privacy, protection of personal data and access to age-appropriate content
• equip children and parents with adequate tools to control their screen time and behaviour, and protect them from the effects of overuse of and addiction to online products
• combating harmful and illegal content
2. The first legal instruments that take into account the rights of the child in the digital environment
The EU Strategy reaffirms the need to develop a legal framework that places children’s rights at its core and is constantly updated in line with technological developments and emergence of new specific risks.
• The revised Audiovisual Media Services Directive has been modified in order to strengthen children’s protection from harmful and inappropriate content.
• The Commission’s Proposal for a Regulation on Digital Services Act (DSA) contains obligations for ICT companies, such as the adoption of mechanisms to combat illegal content and guarantee users’ rights, thus targeting children as well.
• The Code of Practice on Disinformation has been adopted by online platforms and advertisers. The main conclusions of the self-assessment reports made by the online platforms show an improvement in the level of transparency and dialogue between industry and authorities. The code is expected to be extended soon, and the Commission may also propose regulatory measures.
• The Digital Education Action Plan 2021-2027 sets out the Commission’s vision for quality and accessible digital education, and the adaptation of training systems to the digital age.
• The Declaration on Youth Participation in AI Governance, adopted by the Council of Europe, explores the issues, challenges and roles that stakeholders can play in ensuring and enabling young people to participate in AI governance processes at all levels.
• At the international level, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has adopted General Comment no. 25 (2021), on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment. This act gives concrete guidance to states on how they should implement the CDC in the digital environment and legislate to ensure full compliance and effectiveness of the convention.
3. EU and global trends
The trends that are identified at EU and global level in terms of how to regulate the digital sector and the use of new technologies, involve, first of all, the involvement of children in the decision-making process to give them the right to express themselves in relation to their online experience, their needs and concerns, but also to collect data in order to put the interests of children at the center of all public policies. International organizations concerned with the well-being of young people consult with them on the development of a regulatory framework for the virtual environment in forums and programs created specifically for this purpose, in cooperation with local governments,
to ensure the inclusion of a higher number of participants.
The development and implementation of a set of principles to be enforced by the industry, the development of an ethical business conduct, the accountability of ICT companies and their involvement in protecting children from unreasonable use of online content and from harmful and illegal content are some of the issues covered by discussions between states, international organizations and the private sector. Finding a balance between the interests of the business environment and the protection of general interests is one of the biggest challenges of this regulatory process.
Reducing inequalities of opportunity is another complex issue, which raises the special needs of children with disabilities and those from poor families and from marginalized communities, and aims to take measures to reduce and prevent discrimination on any grounds, with a focus on the specific actions to be taken to reduce the gender gap and thus encourage girls to pursue technological studies.
The assertion of strong international and regional cooperation in the digital sector and the information society is the commitment that most states and international organizations have made on every occasion to raise awareness of the stakes when discussing children’s rights in the digital age and in order to join forces before such a powerful commercial sector.
Today we can say, officially, that our life has taken on a new dimension, namely the digital one. We were forced to accelerate the improvement of the technical skills necessary to continue our work, education, to maintain our personal relationships, to cultivate ourselves, to do sports, etc. In this context, in order to protect users, especially the most vulnerable ones (children, people with disabilities), it is necessary to create an appropriate legal framework, which will ensure the protection of our personal data, our security and provide us with the necessary remedies in case of breach of our rights.
Some examples of measures that could allow safer online browsing would be: forcing ICT companies to provide user practical and simplified guides for platforms, to enable settings to control time spent online, to check the age and consent of the person accessing certain sites / applications, to fully confer the right to “digital forgetting”, to prohibit “profiling” practices, to strictly regulate the use of AI etc.
Moreover, it should become a national priority to introduce digital education classes in the school curricula, from the very first years of school, where children could be explained in a playful way (video recordings, role play) and in a language appropriate to their age, what are the risks in the online environment and how they can be controlled. As well, in such a context, kids would also have the chance to develop their critical thinking and their capacity for self-determination.
Additionally, the implementation of adult education programs could equip parents with the tools needed to guide their children in exploring the online environment in the safest way possible.
Furthermore, in order to reduce the time spent in front of the screen, a solution could be to adopt legislation to promote accessible programs at national and local level to facilitate sports activities and adopt a balanced diet.
A century ago, with the Industrial Revolution, it was necessary to create a legal framework for consumer protection, competition regulation and later, the advertising field and the establishment of institutions to monitor compliance, guarantee equal rights and ensure the protection of the vulnerable parties. Likewise, now, at the beginning of a new era, the digital one, it is necessary to establish rules that allow us to avoid abuses of any kind and to set up accessible and efficient remedies.
The EU strategy puts children at the heart of all EU policies and states the need for regulation regardless of the sector. This marks the beginning of a new stage in creating a more equal society by shifting responsibility from the individual, to states and to the business community and drawing clear lines of action to combat the risks specific to the information society.
The future of the digital age that we want for our children must be founded on respect for human rights and achieved under the rule of law.