Shaping the Future: The Rights of Children in the Digital Space

If children are well-versed in the online space, they are more likely to be aware of looming threats and know what to look for
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Written by Humairaa Mayet

Despite the fact that the internet was initially designed for adults, all of whom have digital autonomy, more and more children and teenagers are gaining access to the internet in the contemporary era, bringing an array of issues to the fore. Children, in many – if not most realms – do not have much autonomy and rely heavily on their parents and guardians. In the online space, however, children are often independent of any supervision, and while this may allow them to develop in ways previously unheard of, it may put children in unsafe situations which could be detrimental to their physical and mental health. 

The Digital Dialogue, which took place on 1 June 2023, focused on turning children into digital citizens in the face of uncertainty and unsafety faced in the online space, by all who use it but by children in particular. 

The internet and its appendages are incredibly complex and very few people understand it in its entirety. This creates room for children to find themselves in dangerous spheres of the internet, ones which their parents and guardians, and even themselves, are unfamiliar with. In these spheres, children are at risk of interacting with threatening individuals who may demand that children share with them personal information and compromising pictures. 

Maria Berenguer, Team Leader Youth&ICT4D of SOS Children’s Villages International, emphasises the protection of children in the online space. She believes this can be done by educating children about their rights online, as well as the myriad dangers they face. ChildFund Alliance’s Advocacy and Policy Advisor, Ryan De Souza, too, has stressed the importance of equipping children to participate online in a manner which is safe and ethical. Elvis Fokala, who is the Programme Manager of the Children Rights Unit of the Center for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria stated that across the African continent, there is a lack of education around online safety among children and this needs to be rectified. 

Berenguer stressed the fact that steps must be taken toward “improving the digital literacy and skills of children, and focus must be placed especially upon child safeguarding, as well as prevention and protection mechanisms.” If children are well-versed in the online space, they are more likely to be aware of looming threats and know what to look for. Moreover, by putting preventative and protective measures into place, children are far more likely to feel safe in spaces they would have otherwise felt threatened in. 

As per the research done by De Souza and his organisation, at any given time, “there are approximately 750 000 individuals looking to connect with children online for reasons which are sexual and predatory in nature.” This poses a severe risk to children, many of whom use the internet and social media while completely unsupervised. While parental controls may be put into place in order to abate such situations, these are not always effective and can be overridden. Children have learned how to gain access to websites and applications which put them in situations which could jeopardise their safety. 

“On every platform on which children are involved or exposed to, content must be presented and translated in a child-friendly manner,” said Fokala. Oftentimes, children find themselves in unfamiliar spaces and are unsure as to how they can navigate these harsh terrains. If these spaces are open and child-friendly, it would be far easier for children, not only to familiarise themselves, but also to feel safe and comfortable. It is important for children to feel at ease when in online spaces so as to ensure that no rash decisions are made and that they are not easily lured into complicated situations. 

It must be noted that the use of the internet by children is not entirely negative. Children can use the internet for research purposes and to gain access to information they would otherwise be unable to retrieve. Moreover, the online space can be used for healthy forms of recreation and entertainment, and social media can be used by children to interact with their friends and peers in a secure and wholesome manner.  

Thus, although many children have become active digital citizens, it cannot be denied that children face far more difficulties in the online space than their adult counterparts. Children are far less safe than adults are, and while strides have been made to create safe spaces online for minors, there is still a long way to go. All those in the digital space must pool together their knowledge and use the tools they hold and the skills they have honed to ensure that children can be provided with a safe space to interact with one another online. To learn more about what each of these initiatives and individuals are doing to promote children’s digital rights, watch here.

Also read Ripoti allows Africans to report digital rights violations and Internet shutdowns are a human rights violation

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