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Q&A with Sonia Livingstone

Q&A with Sonia Livingstone

This month, Policy World talks to Professor Sonia Livingstone, OBE

Q. You have long been an advocate of children's rights and, more recently, of children's rights online. Why did you feel the need to 'edit' the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)?

A. There’s a growing interest in human rights in relation to the digital environment, focusing on freedom of expression, information and assembly, and freedom from violence, discrimination and invasion of privacy. We’re seeing rising public awareness and debate, a range of national bills of rights and national legislation, and a host of international efforts to shape internet-related governance, policy and regulation as regards human rights. Yet at best, these acknowledge children’s rights and needs only in relation to their vulnerability and need for protection online. More often, children’s needs and rights are entirely overlooked, it being tacitly assumed that internet users are adult (consider common usage of terms such as “the population” or “internet users”), despite the fact that under-18s constitute an estimated one third of all internet users. I see this situation as problematic because:

  1. it ignores (and thereby neglects) children’s positive rights online (to education, information, participation, privacy, play and assembly, for instance);
  2. it leaves it to parents to fulfil children’s rights online as (supposedly) offline, irrespective of the reality that this creates significant inequalities in practice; and
  3. by positioning children as an exception to the tacitly-adult internet user, it perpetuates the myth that internet users are self-regulating and invulnerable, undermining the rationale for governance in defence of human rights online for everyone.

I ‘edited’ the UNCRC to draw attention to these concerns. On the one hand, I wanted to call upon those already familiar with the UNCRC (concerned with child rights and child welfare) to attend to the challenges posed to children’s wellbeing and life chances by society’s increasing reliance on the digital environment. On the other hand, I wanted to call upon those currently grappling with policies for internet governance to become aware of and attend to children’s particular rights in relation to the digital.

The UNCRC is a brilliant and succinct statement of children’s human rights, and every country in the world except the USA has ratified it, meaning that they have committed to implementing these rights in their laws and national practice. I think we all agree that rights offline are also rights online; in tracking changes on the text of the UNCRC, which was adopted in 1989 and so does not mention the internet, I hoped to point out how the realization of children’s rights could be understood and, hopefully, achieved in the digital age.

Q. This report was commissioned by the Children's Commissioner for England - is the issue of children's rights just a matter for the UK, or has it a global reach? If the latter how does that vary between countries?

A. Human rights are just that, human and thus universal, global. Of course, their realization always faces local challenges and must be effected in particular contexts. But in practice, it’s my impression that policy makers tend to share generally similar concerns as regards children’s rights across diverse countries – the right to family life, identity, education and healthy development, protection from violence and abuse, and so on. So there is considerable common ground on which to promote children’s rights also in the digital environment, even though it is a sad truth that these rights are far from fulfilled for most children around the world, offline or online. 

On the other hand, I recognise that there is, nonetheless, a fair amount of disagreement and contestation over child rights across cultures. I see this as centring, firstly, on the power and responsibility of the family versus the state to determine children’s development and life chances; and, secondly, on the power and responsibility of the parents/carers versus the child themselves in determining when and how they can and should exercise agency and voice. In relation to the internet, the tendency to favour regulatory solutions based on child age, parental rules and consent and commercial (rather than state) provision, combined with the fact that the internet is largely age-blind and transnational in scope, makes for all kinds of difficulties in fulfilling children’s rights on the internet, over and above the already-existing difficulties in fulfilling their rights offline. I don’t have the answers to these difficulties, but I do hope to see wider energy and efforts devoted to recognizing them and to finding better solutions.

Q. Regulators and policy makers are often parents too, but they also have commercial and/or social responsibilities - how does the need to exploit and use digital technologies for advancing economic growth for example, sit with the arguments you make for ensuring children have fair access to digital communications?

A. It’s a short-sighted view that pitches economic growth against children’s access to the benefits of the digital age. Perhaps, yes, in the short term, it is expensive for companies to address children’s rights, and perhaps, too, regulators may think that building a child-rights sensibility into policy and practice is a drag on innovation. But even in the short term, I think we are now seeing a rising number of problems of precisely not attending to children’s rights in the digital environment – consider the media panics over the internet of toys, hacking school databases, low parental/consumer trust in innovative services, domestic struggles to manage family-unfriendly devices, anxiety over the digital future – this, too, is expensive for companies in terms of suboptimal take up and need for user-facing support, and expensive for states in the need for safety campaigns, digital literacy education, and parallel offline and online provision of services. In the longer term, obviously, failing to support and empower children now seems a poor strategy for skilling tomorrow’s jobs workforce or stimulating a competitive digital economy.

Q. As you know the IIC covers the telecommunications, media and technology sectors - what does convergence mean to you in terms of the work you undertake and what is the next big area that you feel needs attention?

A. I think we are witnessing simultaneous convergence and divergence, and that’s fascinating. Convergence in systems, connectivity and platforms. Divergence in content, practices and participation. My work focuses on the experiences, capacities and potential of ordinary people living in extraordinary times. I try to enter people’s everyday realities, exploring what’s meaningful to them, what concerns them, and how they imagine the future. Working with adults – often parents and teachers – is always interesting, because they have some (though limited) power to bring about changes meaningful to them. Working with children is even better, because they have the imagination to think how things could be otherwise, and to express for themselves – and perhaps also for the rest of us – what should be done differently and why.

Present changes make us think differently about the past and the future. Looking back, I am most struck that most of our lives, for most of human history, have been lived unnoticed, our conversations and actions being little observed, local in scope and transitory in nature. Once a feudal existence was left behind, people have lived and breathed mainly in spaces that were held in common, regulated by a known and not-too-distant if often-contested power (whether public or private). Now the very infrastructure of our lives is changing, shifting onto proprietary platforms that own, track, retain and monetise our every interest, comment, action and relationship. Today’s children are the first generation for whom this change is palpable, the first who will not remember anything different, the canaries in the coal mine of our big experiment with the digital. We need to start paying serious attention to what this means, whose interests are being served, what whether things could be otherwise, for all our sakes.

Sonia Livingstone, see www.sonialivingstone.net

  • Monday, 22 May 2017

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