By: Amelia Jarvis
The world is more connected than it has ever been. Young people are required to use technology more and more, whether it is for completing a project at school or being informed about a schoolmate’s party on the weekend. The Internet is so woven into our daily lives, and the lives of children, that we must be aware of the potential harms, but we must also recognize the importance of children’s rights in a networked environment. The blurring of public and private spheres that accompanies networked technologies can have serious implications for children’s privacy rights because they blur the lines between a child’s school life, social life and home life. This makes it easier for other figures in a child’s life, such as their parents and teachers, to cross those lines to control over a child’s online activities, which can shape the sorts of opportunities that young people have. Social media has changed privacy for children, as it seems that today’s generation of children are the most watched generation in recent years.
When it comes to networked technologies and children’s rights, a tension exists between the desire to protect children from various forms of harm they may encounter online, and the importance of acknowledging children as rights-bearers who are entitled to free speech, free association and participation in social and cultural life. Oftentimes the fear of harm ends up overshadowing these rights, and this can ultimately lead to highly protective techniques that restrict a child’s ability to enjoy the positive aspects of a networked environment.
An example of the tension between child protection and a child’s ability to exercise his or her human rights is the reliance on surveillance in cyberbullying laws. Cyberbullying involves the use of communication technologies such as social networking sites, websites, e-mail, text messaging and instant messaging to repeatedly intimidate or harass another individual. While the effects of cyberbullying on children can undoubtedly be harmful, we must balance protection/prevention with the need to respect a child’s rights to freedom of expression and privacy. The agency and self-determination of young people is too often lost in anti-cyberbullying laws and the types of cyberbullying initiatives that many schools have implemented. Children should be able to access educational sites and chat with their friends without having their every move watched or having their valuable Internet privileges taken away from them. This heightened surveillance does not only cause children a great deal of frustration, but it is also a breach of their rights.
For this reason, a rights-based approach to children’s activities in a networked environment is of paramount importance because it would recognize the respect to which rights bearers are entitled. Recognizing the link between cyberbullying and children’s rights, including the right to protection from harm as well as other interrelated rights in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, would provide the critical perspective necessary to formulate effective responses. Such a perspective allows us to recognize that the Internet, cellular phones and other digital media provide children and young people with many educational and social benefits – access to knowledge, information, recreation, socialization and a sense of inclusion with peers. Because of this, a rights-based approach will work to ensure that children continue to exercise their voice online because of their role as rights bearers.