Embedding children’s rights in the digital environment: the Digital Futures Commission

by Sonia Livingstone, LSE, UK.

For the past three years, the Digital Futures Commission, hosted by 5Rights Foundation and guided by a multistakeholder group of Commissioners has sought to embed children’s best interests at the heart of the digital world to drive real world change for children and young people.

Recognising that digital technologies are part of the infrastructure of children’s daily lives, and inspired by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which applies from birth to 18, the Digital Futures Commission has asked what ‘good’ looks like for children in a digital world. Working collaboratively with many experts, practitioners, researchers and, of course, children, we explored ways to design exciting possibilities for free play in digital contexts, share education data that benefit children’s best interests in privacy-respecting ways and, bringing it all together, empower innovators to make the changes children want and deserve.

Here we highlight the key outputs from our three work streams, as also summarised in the Final Report.

Playful by Design

To cut through today’s anxious confusion about digital play, we took an unusual approach, grounding our work in the nature of children’s play and the value of free play in childhood. By reviewing research through history and across cultures, we identified eight prototypical qualities of free or child-led play. Through consultation with children, parents and professionals working with children, we identified four further qualities. Together, these 12 qualities of play provide a language for what ‘good’ looks like for children’s free play in a digital world. With children and experts, we evaluated options for transposing the qualities of play into digital contexts, finding that the digital environment falls short on some essential qualities – intrinsic motivation, safety, risk-taking and voluntary play. Building on their insights regarding features that enhance or hinder their play we created our Playful by Design Tool.

Beneficial Uses of Education Data

Data are collected from children all day long – at home, in the street, during their leisure time, and while they learn at school. We quickly discovered that sharing children’s data is fraught with risk, mainly because data governance is weak. Through a series of socio-legal investigations and interviews with schools, data protection officers and other experts, we revealed the unfair burden placed on schools to negotiate contracts with opaque and powerful companies, and the lack of data protection compliance of some of these companies. Our essay collection explored new possibilities for sharing education data in children’s best interests and the public interest. We concluded with a blueprint for child rights-respecting data governance and practice, setting out focuses on three priorities for the government and the regulator: (i) Strengthen existing legal frameworks and enforcement to protect data about children in education; (ii) Introduce a 10-point certification scheme for EdTech used in school settings; (iii) Create a trusted data-sharing infrastructure to serve children’s best interests and the public interest.

Child Rights by Design – guidance for innovators

The Digital Future Commission’s ambition is that all providers of digital products and services that impact children have children in mind and embed children’s rights into their provision. We took our lead from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s authoritative statement, General Comment No. 25, on how to implement the UNCRC in relation to the digital environment. We consulted innovators, practitioners, experts and children to develop the guidance and make it practical. Designers told us of their everyday dilemmas about how to consult children, meet the needs of different age groups, balance protection and participation, and know when they have got it right. To find answers for them, we drew on the collected wisdom of many rights-based, ethical and value-sensitive organisations and a consultation with children around the country. The resulting toolkit sets out principle-based design considerations to help digital innovators embed children’s rights into digital products and services.

Sonia Livingstone is a Professor in the Department of Media and Communications, London School of Economics and Political Science, and led the Digital Futures Commission with Baroness Beeban Kidron, 5Rights Foundation.