A Healthy Digital Environment for Children Means More than ProtectionChild Rights Safety
For young people, the digital environment is a modern-day playground or park. It is where they hang out, socialize, and learn. But ask any parent or policymaker about children and online environments, and chances are they mostly see health and safety risks.
Protecting children from online exploitation, privacy violations, and manipulative business practices is vital. However, focusing exclusively on protection isn’t enough to ensure the online world is a healthy, positive space for children. It’s like building a playground fixating only on safety — abandoning any consideration of child development, the importance of play, and children’s social interactions.
Today, online spaces are a focal point of young people’s lives. Young children (8-12 years old) report almost 5 hours of screen time per day, while teenagers report more than 7 hours per day, not including school or homework time. And the COVID-19 pandemic has only added to that.
But as children live more of their lives online, it has become clear that the digital world, like most public spaces throughout history, was not designed specifically for kids. Research shows that the digital environment is adversely affecting children’s cognitive, social, and emotional development. These issues demand a response, but the goal cannot be just to avoid harm. Instead, we must affirmatively mold the digital environment into a space where children can develop and thrive.
Although social media and tech companies might feel too big to control, the digital environment is not a fixed space. It is continuously evolving, so we have the opportunity, and responsibility, to shape the online world into a healthier, more enriching space for young people.
To do so requires several steps. First, we must stop thinking of children as a homogenous group. The needs and capacities of a 15-year-old and a 5-year-old differ. Failing to account for these differences infantilizes adolescents and spurs responses that fit poorly with children’s developmental stages. Our policies and strategies must reflect the diversity of childhood and be responsive to child development, just as many playgrounds have different equipment for different ages of children.
Second, we need to see children as individuals with rights and not merely charitable causes needing protection. Yes, children need protection from online exploitation. In fact, they have a right to protection. But seeing children as rights holders means much more than a claim to protection; it means ensuring all rights of children online, including the right to education, to enjoy their own culture, and to play. That also means policies must not deny children their rights in the name of protecting or “saving” them.
Protective measures are needed, especially for young children, but they must be combined with measures that empower young people to navigate online spaces safely and reap the benefits of the online world. Digital literacy education offers one means of achieving this. It’s analogous to teaching children how to develop healthy relationships and avoid toxic or unsafe situations, rather than simply prohibiting them from leaving the house.
Third, we must recognize young people as members of our community who have a right to be heard now, and not only at some ill-defined point in the future. The digital environment can be a space where children learn about their rights and civic duties, make their voices heard, and articulate a better vision for our world. What would have been isolated school strikes to protest climate change 15 years ago have become global movements because of organizing and activism online. While Greta Thunberg’s stand may be one of the most recognizable examples of young people leading, there are countless others. In the United States, young people have emerged as leading voices on gun violence, climate change, racial injustice, and other issues, and they have used social media to build movements and demand action by both policymakers and the private sector.
Embracing these ideas does not mean abandoning efforts to protect children. We must address online exploitation, cyberbullying, and racial and gender-based discrimination online. But we don’t need to settle for harm avoidance as the best we can do. After all, today we design safer parks and playgrounds, where the risk of injury is significantly reduced but young people are still free to express themselves and to explore, interact, and develop.
Ultimately, we need a better vision of what the digital environment can become. Young people are already showing us that. Policymakers and tech companies need to join child advocates and parents in partnering with young people to help reshape the digital environment into a space in which children are not only safe but can thrive.
Jonathan Todres is a Distinguished University Professor & Professor of Law at Georgia State University College of Law. Joseph Wright is a Ph.D. candidate in education and MPH student in community health sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles.