A Dialogue Between Children’s Rights and Children’s Use of Social Media

This post is by project member, Sara Lambrechts – Researcher and Policy Advisor at the Children’s Rights Knowledge Centre (KeKi), Belgium. 

Children’s rights can enrich the debate about young people’s use of digital media. Both within research and within the family, we find a dominant practice of protecting children against online risks. This focus tends to overlook the need to encourage and enable children’s participation and the provision of adequate services. A rights-based discourse seeks to balance protection, provision and participation rights of children. As such, it can help us not only to ask new questions, but also to stimulate the development of new insights challenging the protection-paradigm. How could this work? We explore a few ideas.

 In the thematic analysis of the database of the Children’s Rights Knowledge Centre, which gathers Flemish research related to children’s rights since 2004, we found that research about digital media got a boost. Also, the amount of research on the crossroad of media and children’s rights has increased significantly. However, a closer look at the research projects suggests that researchers struggle with the question how they can adapt their methodology to the fast paced evolution of digital technologies. In particular, current research in Flanders seems to have a one-sided emphasis on the negative aspects of media, mostly focusing on protecting children against online risks. A literature study of international research on media and children’s rights shows similar results. Without denying the importance of protecting children in the digital media landscape, a need emerges for research and paradigms that start from a participatory view on what digital media means for children themselves.

The same holds true for children’s media use within the family. Parents, while often amazed at what children and young people can do on digital media, tend to equate the online world with a hotbed of risks and insecurity. Monitoring and protecting actions, including shielding children from screens, are not an uncommon response at home. Such measures, however, contain a risk in themselves. As research shows, unnecessary or extreme protection deprives children of development opportunities. In particular, an exclusive focus on protection overlooks important questions, for example whether risks are always a problem, why children may experience difficulties using digital media, how they can learn to become media-literate, and what kind of support they need to overcome vulnerability online.

Children’s rights can encourage a richer debate in research and practice. The strength of a children’s rights perspective is that it looks beyond the legal norms, translated into regulations and policy. Children’s rights also have an important social significance. They are linked to society’s views on how we look at children and young people, how we deal with them and how much space we give them. That is why children’s rights are a starting point for critical reflection.

Children’s rights are a combination of protection, provision and participation rights – the so-called 3 P’s. More specifically, using a children’s rights perspective always presupposes an exercise in balancing between these three P’s. Both in policy and in one’s own attitude as an adult, attention must be paid to each child’s vulnerability and strengths on the one hand and the role that the environment and the government must play to support children on the other. The context helps to determine how to find this balance.

This means a good balance between protection, provision and participation differs for every child and for every incident. In the online world, for example, while most children are able to deal healthily with online risks, there is also a vulnerable minority. These young people experience a greater sense of unease and may not know what actions they can take to tackle a problem, especially when faced with little self-confidence and insufficient knowledge or capacity to take control. Also, one online risk may differ to the next. When it comes to resilience building, young people experience more difficulties with cyber-bullying and privacy than with unwanted sexual or violent images. Especially when their reputation in the classroom or at school is at stake, it is more difficult to get out stronger after an incident.

Balancing the three P’s also shows that, just as an exclusive focus on risk does not offer magical solutions, so does an exclusive focus on digital skills. A high level of technical knowledge does not automatically form a buffer against negative feelings. Sufficient ‘button knowledge’ does not automatically mean being good at information skills. And not all children and young people with few digital skills are vulnerable. Most of them tend to compensate for their lack of technical knowledge by staying away from a website or app. They solve their limitation by addressing someone who can help.

In particular, critical thinking, analysis and evaluation of media content are essential skills to avoid online risks. It is precisely these things that vulnerable children have more difficulty with. However, a supportive environment can play a decisive role in building resilience and increasing online participation. Children and adolescents who have a good relationship with parents, teachers, friends, social workers and others around them take the step of talking more quickly about an unpleasant experience. Supported by their environment, they are more willing to take action, so the problem does not escalate.

The right media education style does not exist, as much depends on the age of the child or young person, the media competences, the purpose of media use and the device. Nevertheless, as a parent, teacher or educator, you can create a framework in which children and young people feel safe and supported. Discover and enjoy digital media together, help the child or the young person search, talk about what they see and do, remember that children and young people imitate adults, repetition remains fun, search for positive content, make clear agreements: what, where, for how long… A platform such as MediaNest, a Flemish media education website that informs and raises awareness about media themes, responds to this. It enables conversations between adults, children and young people to talk about digital media, both about opportunities and about risks.

We should not forget most children and young people are doing well online. They often combine relaxation and fun with more creative activities. Without denying the fact that paying attention to risks and insecurity is important, striking a balance towards more attention to and recognition of this positive image is welcome. Also, if children and young people are supported, protected and enabled to become sufficiently resilient and build up sufficient self-confidence, skills and possibilities to deal with unpleasant experiences, they will likely be less inconvenienced by online risks. In order to develop resilience in an online environment, children and young people need to be given the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. An incident can then become a meaningful experience.

More information (in Dutch) can be found here.

With special thanks to Katrien Herbots, Elke Boudry, Marjon Schols, Sofie Vandoninck, Hadewijch Vanwynsberghe & Eveline Van Hooijdonck for their contributions.