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Empower kids with digital access: UN watchdog

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The Committee on the Rights of the Child found that countries are responsible for rectifying such situations by ensuring children have "meaningful" and safe access to digital technologies. Source: Scott Olson/AFP

Proper digital access is no game for children, it is a right that each and every country should guarantee, a UN watchdog said Wednesday. Images of children huddled in store parking lots to access the wifi needed for their online schoolwork have been common during the pandemic, while sexual predators have long stalked children in online chatrooms.

In its first such analysis, the Committee on the Rights of the Child found that countries are responsible for rectifying such situations by ensuring children have “meaningful” and safe access to digital technologies. “Governments really need to think about giving as much access to the digital environment as possible to all children,” committee member Philip Jaffe told AFP. “Not only to protect them but to empower them.”

“We are in a societal transformation phase,” he pointed out, insisting that “we must make sure that the human factor doesn’t get lost in these huge technological advances.” The committee highlighted the obligations of governments to ensure children have equal access to the digital technologies like those that over the past pandemic year have become vital to education.

Increasing inequalities

“If digital inclusion is not achieved, existing inequalities are likely to increase and new ones may arise,” it warned. Jaffe acknowledged that currently at least, “a world standard is really impossible”, since countries had different means to provide digital access to their children. “But it is important that we keep promoting this non-discrimination approach worldwide.”

Tasked with monitoring implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the panel’s 18 independent experts spent two years consulting with governments, intergovernmental organisations, civil society and children.

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States should take robust legislative and administrative measures to protect children from “harmful and untrustworthy content. Source: Yasser Al-Zayyat/AFP

They spoke with more than 700 children and young people, aged between nine and 22, across 27 countries, to get a feel for how digital technology was impacting their rights. They concluded that states should take robust legislative and administrative measures to protect children from “harmful and untrustworthy content”.

Children, they said, needed to be protected from all forms of violence in the digital environment, including from child trafficking, gender-based violence, cyber-aggression, cyber-attacks and information warfare. “It is a dangerous world in the digital world for many children. It is very unregulated,” Jaffe said. He lamented that there were relatively easy ways to ensure more digital safety for children, but that “nobody feels compelled to do so because there is no legal requirement to do it”.

Privacy ‘paramount’

Countries should strive to introduce verifiable age requirements for different online content, in the same way as they have imposed age limits at movie theatres. “That technology exists,” he said. “These are easy things to do.”

There should also be more monitoring of chat rooms frequented by youths and functions like direct messaging — often used by sexual predators — should be disabled for users under a certain age. He stressed the need for more regulation to “nudge commercial entities and the business sector towards responsible content,” including a requirement to conduct risk assessments whenever new websites or programmes are offered to children.

“The idea is to have regulator oversight to make sure that access is broad, that bad business practices are mitigated to a certain extent (and) that children are protected.” The committee also highlighted the growing importance of protecting children’s privacy, urging countries to introduce laws barring private companies from making money from collecting children’s digital data records.

Jaffe pointed to the dangers of all the data already accumulating about children well before they reach adulthood. “Some companies may have data on their sexual development, on their masturbation habits or health issues .. that will hinder their capacity to find jobs or get healthcare.” “Privacy of the data is really paramount.”

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