Children’s rights in person and online

By Brian Donnelly, Director of Respectme

The rapid integration of social media into our everyday lives has been met with a mix of enthusiasm and fear by adults. For the most part young people have welcomed it as an exciting place to talk to friends and to socialise. For some adults and parts of the media, it is and I quote, a ‘lawless jungle’. The way children and young people behave online is sensationalised and behaviour that takes place off line is often ignored and side-lined for the headline grabbing ‘cyber menace’.

At respectme, we think of the internet as a place not a thing, it is a social space. We delivered a campaign in 2011 called ‘She’s still going somewhere’ – the message was, whether your child is going into town or going online, they are still going somewhere. You need to be just as interested in where they go and what they do online as you would if they were going out into your local area. We need adults to connect with social media and understand what it is, how it works and how to navigate this place safely.

Children’s right to privacy is enshrined in Article 16 of the UNCRC. Privacy online though is not the same and any ‘reasonable expectations to privacy’ need to be re-framed. Most default settings for social media are not ‘private’ – meaning anyone, parent or not can find, forward or doctor your posts or pictures. If you want something online to be private, you need to make it ‘private’. I have discussed this with many young people who respond to the notion of parents being able to see what they do online by saying that ‘it’s the same as looking at my diary’ I respect this viewpoint but I will also explain that posts of Facebook or Twitter are not a diary, not something that is only ever in your room for you to use and see – it’s on a world-wide and very accessible system.

Children have a right to access information and the internet is a great source for this, although determining what good information is and what isn’t remains a challenge for children and adults. My research highlights children use social media to communicate with friends – almost all of whom they know, they watch videos and listen to music. Adults are more prolific ‘searchers’ and researchers online.

The challenge for parents especially when they are concerned about what their chid is doing or experiencing online is to strike the balance between respecting their right to privacy but also ensuring their right to protection (Article 19), and their right to parental guidance (Article 5). Exploring social media is a journey many of our children and young people will go on – we must go on this journey with them, discuss limits, expectations and role model how to behave online.

As the UN Day of General Discussion of the Committee on the Rights of the Child took place last week focusing on Digital Media and Children’s Rights, we need to understand how social media is used, and how we help adults and children and young people assimilate an understanding of how their rights apply in this place. We know from successful anti-bullying work that you do not carve off what happens online as an entirely separate phenomenon. When we talk about bullying we include behaviour that happens face to face and online. When we talk about safety and risk, we must include in person and online. So when we understand Rights, we mean in person and online.


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