Children’s rights in the digital world: the UK’s opportunity to create ground breaking legislation

On Safer Internet Day 2022 ‘All fun and games? Exploring respect and relationships online’, Head of Strategy, Gina Wilson writes about strengthening the draft Online Safety Bill to better protect children.

Online spaces can be incredible places for children. Connecting with each other online has never been more valued than now, during the pandemic. 

Digital exclusion remains a real issue, with some children cut off from vital opportunities to learn and create and keep friendships online. All of which has a negative effect on mental health.  

But we know that in navigating the positives of being online, children are also exposed to harm. That includes cyber-bullying, material promoting violence or racism, pornography and other age-inappropriate content. It also includes harm caused by algorithms and automated systems, nudge techniques and the endless scroll.  

Children and young people in situations of vulnerability offline, are at greater risk of harm online. They are more likely to fall for an online scam, more likely to say someone online tried to persuade them into unwanted sexual activity and more likely to have their intimate images shared in revenge.

Our laws have not kept pace with the rise of social media and smartphones.

The UK Government, through its draft Online Safety Bill, has the opportunity to create ground-breaking legislation. To establish a new regulatory framework to tackle a range of online harms, with specific protections for children.

The work of 5Rights Foundation, highlighting what a truly ambitious Online Safety Bill for children should look like, shows how important it is to directly involve children and young people in the process.

As we await the UK Government returning a revised Bill in the coming months, we hope to see further changes to strengthen it. The Bill offers a vital chance to better protect children’s rights online.

Make it clear

The digital world is for everyone. The Bill should be simplified so it can be well understood by all users. This is even more important and valuable for children. Make the law understandable to them. Services within scope of the Bill should include all those that are ‘likely to be accessed by children’. The Bill should be clear on what constitutes harm and include both content and activity.  

Check ages   

The Bill should prioritise urgent improvements on age verification and age assurance technology by online services, particularly in relation to accessing pornography. This will reduce the chances of children being exposed to harmful content by accident. 
Ofcom should set minimum standards for proportionate, privacy-preserving age assurance mechanisms. Children have rights of freedom of association, participation and information, as well as the right to protection.

Involve children

Children and young people must be involved in designing processes intended to protect them. Their experiences and ideas must challenge and change the online world. They have the right to participate in the decisions that affect them.

Ofcom will be at the heart of regulating online safety, they should be required to develop codes of practice in consultation with not only experts in child online safety and children’s rights but with children themselves.

We must value children as active participants and rights-holders; they are the experts in their own lives and experiences.  

Right to complain

When things go wrong, children want support. They need child friendly ways to be able to challenge power, not only relying on reporting incidents of abuse and harmful content directly to platforms.

The Bill should give individual children the right to complain to Ofcom. Children should have direct access to share concerns and complaints with the regulator, and Ofcom should gather evidence of new and emerging risks. All of this requires Ofcom to be given sufficient power and resource.  

The UN is clear in its General Comment on children’s rights in the digital environment. Governments should ensure that ‘in all actions regarding the provision, regulation, design, management and use of the digital environment, the best interests of every child is a primary consideration’.

The Bill must protect all children, wherever they are online. So no, the online world is not all fun and games as the question asks. But it is a crucial place, a space where children can realise the full range of their civil, political, social, cultural, economic and environmental rights.

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