UNCRC General Comment: Children’s rights in the digital world

Today, almost all aspects of our lives are influenced by – even reliant on – the digital environment. Every day, children in every region of every continent learn, connect, play and express themselves online. One in three of the world’s internet users are children, and yet the internet was not created with their best interests at heart.

There is international recognition that human rights apply equally to children and young people as they do to adults – and that because children are still growing, learning, maturing and acquiring new capabilities - that they are entitled to special care and assistance. As a result, governments and adults have extra responsibilities to make sure that children can realise and access all their rights – and that an appropriate balance is struck between protecting children from harm while respecting their capacities for emerging autonomy and participation. While steps have been taken to address the rights of a child in the natural world, this has not been the case in relation to the digital world – until now.

eSafety is thrilled to support the launch of General Comment No. 25 on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment, which was formally adopted by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in February (2021). The General Comment recognises that, in the same way human rights apply to children in a physical sense, they equally apply in the digital world. Moving forward, every country that is party to the UNCRC will now need to consider the best interests of children when making decisions on the provision, regulation, design and management of the digital environment.

The collective efforts of governments, industry, child rights advocates, and indeed children – working towards a shared vision – has led us to this extraordinary achievement. For those who have worked tirelessly, over many years, to ensure that children’s rights in the digital world are respected, protected and secured – this is a seminal moment.

What this means in practice is that special attention must now be paid to ensure that children and young people are able to use the internet safely, while also feeling empowered to actively participate in all that it can offer. The General Comment provides the foundations for children’s rights online to be realised and implemented – and clarifies the roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders – from children through to businesses to achieve this objective. It provides countries with a mandate to effectively protect children from all forms of violence including cyberbullying, grooming, sexual exploitation and abuse in the digital environment. It also sets expectations for businesses to adhere to the highest standards of ethics, privacy and safety in the provision of their services. We cannot overstate the importance of this.

eSafety had the privilege of providing feedback and input into the General Comment. We took part in international deliberations, wrote directly to the Committee and contributed to the Australian Government’s submission. It is deeply gratifying to see many of our observations and recommendations reflected in the final version of the General Comment.

The significance of this milestone gives cause for reflection. Since our founding as the Children’s eSafety Commissioner in 2015, eSafety has been working tirelessly to afford children the safest possible digital space to express themselves, explore their identities and learn about the evolving world around them.

eSafety’s work is heavily influenced, informed and guided by human rights principles. Our holistic model enables us to protect children from online harms and preserve their dignity – through both our cyberbullying scheme and in our work to remove online child sexual abuse material from the internet. We work to prevent harms through evidence-based research, awareness raising and the provision of high-quality resources and outreach programs – with dedicated programmes for pre-school children right the way through to young adults. We work proactively with industry to ensure that safety is a paramount consideration throughout the lifecycle of product design, development and deployment - Safety by Design. We commit to listening to the voices of young people to ensure we understand and act in their interests. And we remain future-focused – scanning for key trends and anticipating innovations and challenges that may negatively impact on children and young people so that we can act quickly and decisively to mitigate harms before they occur.

Through this powerful combination of functions, eSafety can proudly say that it not only meets, but is driving forward on the principles, implementation measures, and remedies outlined in the General Comment.

There is still much work to be done, and the UNCRC’s adoption of the General Comment, while significant, is only just the beginning. Governments, regulators, digital companies, and advocates across the world now face the challenge of fully implementing the expectations outlined in the General Comment. eSafety hopes that all stakeholders will be bold in their approach – and that we see heightened levels of innovation, investment and positive outcomes for children in the digital world, that genuinely have their best interests at heart.

It truly is time that we recognised our children’s rights in the digital environment.