Protecting children’s rights in a digital age

“If it isn’t on social media, it didn’t happen,” the new philosophy goes. Whatever your social media platform of choice – Facebook, Instagram, etc – if there isn’t a picture or some online evidence for an event, it’s like it never happened.

We want to belong, that’s human instinct, but we also want to belong in a specific way. We want others to see our lives and validate it, to think it’s important.

So we share. Whether in words or pictures, we share our thoughts and our experiences. This can serve a valuable purpose – keeping in touch with distant friends or relatives, or maybe even to share an important life event.

But what happens when we share digital information about people who have no say in whether the information is shared in the first place?

A fascinating new study from a team of researchers from the University of Washington and University of Michigan looked at the evolving rules of what’s “shareable” online between parents and kids. The kicker? They looked at the perspective of the kids.

Whether on social media or a blog, parents are sharing pictures and stories about their newborns and kids. “Mommy blogs” have carved out their own unique niche, chronicling a child’s early years.

Here’s the big question. What do kids think about this? What does a 10 or 11 year old think about all of those baby pictures their mom shared on her social media accounts?

The researchers studied 250 parent-child pairs from 40 different states across the country. Turns out, kids don’t really like having information posted about them to social media nearly as much as their parents do. Three times the number of children compared to parents thought there should be rules for what parents post about them on social media.

Though this was a relatively small study, and there hasn’t been many others like it, it raises some interesting ethical and legal questions about children’s rights.

When it comes to children’s rights, no other legal instrument changed the way children are viewed (not as passive objects of care, but humans with a distinct set of rights) around the world than the Convention on the Rights of the Child. (I say this knowing full well that the United States has signed the treaty but is the only United Nations Member State that has yet to ratify it. That’s an entirely separate conversation…)

Article 17 is probably the most applicable text, which focuses on mass media:

States Parties recognize the important function performed by the mass media and shall ensure that the child has access to information and material from a diversity of national and international sources, especially those aimed at the promotion of his or her social, spiritual and moral well-being and physical and mental health.

To this end, States Parties shall:

(a) Encourage the mass media to disseminate information and material of social and cultural benefit to the child and in accordance with the spirit of article 29;

(b) Encourage international co-operation in the production, exchange and dissemination of such information and material from a diversity of cultural, national and international sources;

(c) Encourage the production and dissemination of children’s books;

(d) Encourage the mass media to have particular regard to the linguistic needs of the child who belongs to a minority group or who is indigenous;

(e) Encourage the development of appropriate guidelines for the protection of the child from information and material injurious to his or her well-being, bearing in mind the provisions of articles 13 and 18.

You’ll notice though that the focus is more on access to information, whatever the channel. This would presumably include digital and social media.

However, here’s the big gap. The article is framed mostly from a place of deficiency. Children lack access to appropriate information, so we need to help realize their right by encouraging dissemination and consumption of appropriate information.

But we’re not talking about deficiency. Instead, this is a case of unwanted excess. Part (e) gets closest to the issue in ensuring there are sufficient controls in place to safeguard children from information that could harm them. However, it’s less clear if this would protect children from the unwanted sharing of personal information by another person that could in-turn harm them (in this case, psychologically).

In any case, this leads to several much larger questions:

  • What if a child is unable to verbally voice their disapproval of information that’s shared about them?
  • What if this shared information, in turn, becomes injurious to their well-being in the future?
  • Is there any way of protecting children from injurious information sharing when it’s their immediate guardian who is doing the sharing?

I’m not a lawyer, and these are probably not the only legal questions at play here. But more than anything, I think this example highlights the challenges that policy has in keeping pace with the speed of technological and societal evolution. And just because something is technologically feasible, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s morally superior or best for all segments of society, particularly the most vulnerable.

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