Three decades on from the UN Convention, what does it mean to talk about children’s rights in relation to media?
It’s now 30 years since the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was formally adopted by the General Assembly. The Convention was subsequently ratified by all members of the UN, with the single notable exception of the United States: this gives it the force of law, and enables the UN to monitor compliance. Even at the time, the idea of children’s rights was hardly new. The CRC was in fact preceded by an earlier Declaration, adopted by the League of Nations in 1924, and subsequently by the UN in 1959. But in the past few decades, the idea of children’s rights, and the Convention itself, have had a massive influence on social and welfare policy throughout the world.
It’s generally assumed that rights are absolute and universal. But particularly when it comes to children, this isn’t a straightforward issue. The idea of universal rights is difficult to apply in a context where different cultures have very different traditions and ideologies of child-rearing. The Convention declares (for example, in Article 8) that children have rights to a cultural identity, but in practice this seems to be equated with the cultural identity of their parents. In this as in other areas, the Convention resolves this dilemma by locating children’s rights within the context of the family, and hence placing its central emphasis on sustaining the rights of parents.
A dramatic illustration of the tensions that can arise here is provided by the continuing controversy in the UK around sex education. Over the past year, one of the major flashpoints has been the ongoing protests by Muslim parents over the teaching of LGBT and transgender issues at a primary school in Birmingham. There has been a good deal of misinformation about what the teaching actually entails; and it’s not clear how representative the protesters actually are. But the terms of the conflict – between the rights of children to receive accurate information (in this case, about sexuality) and the rights of parents to maintain their cultural and religious values – point to wider tensions in the concept of children’s rights. As in many such campaigns, the protesters here make use of equally universal claims about the nature of childhood; they argue that keeping children away from such information is a way of ‘letting children be children’.
What might it mean to apply the idea of rights to children’s use of media? I first wrote about this twenty years ago, back in the prehistoric days before social media. In some respects, the issues look very different today, although some of the basic principles – and some of the fundamental tensions – remain the same.
The Convention itself refers to children’s rights to freedom of expression, and to receive and impart information and ideas in a range of media (Article 13). It refers specifically to the right of access to ‘mass’ media, from a diversity of national and international sources (Article 17); and to the right to participate in cultural, artistic and recreational activities (Article 31). These statements are slightly qualified, however: it seems that children don’t have the right to do things that are not appropriate to their age, or that are deemed to be injurious to their well-being – although there’s no indication of how (or by whom) these things are to be defined.
In practically applying this approach, advocates of children’s rights often use the ‘three Ps’: protection, provision and participation. Protection might be seen as a negative right – that is, against things that are deemed to be harmful. Provision and participation are more positive – entitlements to particular kinds of treatment, or to self-determination.
This approach can be applied to children and media, although in each case some difficult questions arise. Ideas about protection clearly inform policies about potentially harmful content, and (in relation to social media) about privacy. It goes without saying that children should be protected – as indeed should adults. Yet the evidence about harm (for example, about the effects of different kinds of sex and violence in media) remains highly contested; as indeed do claims about children’s competence in dealing with such material.
The issue of provision looks rather more complex than it would have done thirty years ago. Children have become an enormously lucrative consumer market for media companies. Broadly speaking, the issue is no longer one of the quantity of provision, although this is not the same thing as quality or diversity. In this context, we need to look hard at where the market fails to provide; but we also need to justify our assumptions about what children need, and what we believe is ‘good’ for them.
On the face of it, the potential for children’s participation is significantly greater than it was thirty years ago. However, as I’ve argued elsewhere, claims about the wondrous benefits of ‘participatory media’ need to be treated with considerable caution. Freedom of expression is by no means equally available to all, and it is constrained and shaped in all sorts of ways, not least by the commercial operations of large media companies.
It’s not hard to imagine situations in which these three kinds of rights might conflict with each other; and the increased potential for participation in social media makes this much more acute. A recent case in point would be the controversy around the role of social media in self-harm and suicide. In the public debate, social media sites are often accused of encouraging risky behaviour. From the point of view of protection, the case for removal or censorship of such material seems obvious. Yet on the other hand, one could argue that it’s important for young people who feel distressed and isolated to be able to share their experiences online – and that this might even help to prevent such phenomena. From the point of view of participation, this then becomes an issue of freedom of expression. Once again, the evidence that social media influence behaviour in either direction – and that some kind of ban would solve the problem – is decidedly mixed.
A similar tension can be seen in the debate about ‘sexting’, which I’ve written about in an earlier post. Sharing digital images of oneself can certainly present risks; but for some, it is simply an everyday social practice, which can easily become an aspect of intimate relationships (not only for young people). Here again, drawing a simple dividing line between risks and benefits is far from straightforward: to protect young people from harm may also be to restrict their ability to participate and to express themselves.
Recent discussions of ‘digital rights’ have attempted to negotiate these difficult debates. Acknowledging the complexity of the issues, while also making clear and positive recommendations, isn’t easy. The iRights framework is one such attempt, which is explicitly based on the UN Convention. It lays out five rights, as follows:
- the Right to Remove material that you yourself have posted;
- the Right to Know by whom, why and for what purposes your data is being exchanged;
- the Right to Safety and Support, not only in relation to illegal material, but anything that young people might find upsetting;
- the Right to Informed and Conscious Use, rather than giving in to ‘addiction’;
- the Right to Digital Literacy – understanding the purposes and social outcomes of technology use.
There are a few problems here – for example, I don’t find the notion of ‘addiction’ particularly helpful in this context; and of course, it all depends on what we mean by digital literacy (I’ve had my say on this before). Yet in principle, this seems to be a helpful, positive framework, which in some instances is already enshrined in law. Even so, I’m not convinced it goes far enough.
It’s worth asking whether (or why) such rights should only apply to children. The Right to Remove, for example, would seem at first sight to be something we should all enjoy. But would we want to extend this to politicians, for example? Current political debate is full of instances of politicians saying or doing things and then being forced to backtrack – while claiming that they made a ‘mistake’, or that they ‘mis-spoke’, or even flatly denying that they said such a thing in the first place. Are we to assume that children should have this right because they don’t know any better – whereas adults should be denied it because they are old enough to take responsibility for what they say? And if so, when does responsibility begin, and how do people learn it?
As this implies, the idea of rights also presumes that people are competent to exercise rights. In the area of media, ideas about competence tend to veer awkwardly from arguments about children’s inherent innocence and vulnerability to assertions about their spontaneous wisdom (as ‘digital natives’). Both, in my view, tend towards a chronic sentimentality.
If children are deemed to be insufficiently competent to exercise rights, or not yet ready to do so, then it is assumed that parents need to do this on their behalf. Yet this is bound to be contentious. Both in law and in everyday life, we draw the line between adults and children in many different ways for different purposes; and in doing so, we often rely on assumptions about what children should be, rather than evidence about what they are, or what they can actually do or understand. The key question is not so much when children become competent – as though we could agree on some magic age at which such issues cease to matter – but how. In this respect, we need to think in terms of a fourth right: education.
The iRights framework places a useful emphasis on knowledge in this respect. One might argue that it is rather over-optimistic about the possibilities of ‘informed and conscious use’; and that much of our use of social media – like our social relationships offline – is inevitably and necessarily driven by emotion. Any form of media education (or ‘digital literacy’, if you will) that fails to engage with the emotional, symbolic and pleasurable dimensions of media use isn’t likely to get very far. Perhaps education is ultimately a rationalistic enterprise, but it is surely more than a prophylactic against things that adults deem to be harmful to children: there is much more to teaching about digital media than internet safety.
In principle, as I’ve suggested, the idea of children’s media rights should help us to frame the issues in more positive terms. Unfortunately, the content on the iRights website (run by what is now called the 5Rights Foundation) focuses almost exclusively on issues of harm, safety and protection. Personally, I think we have had more than enough discussion of protection, and still too little of provision and participation – and especially of education.
Ultimately, the major problem with these kinds of frameworks is that they seem to place the primary onus for exercising rights on individuals themselves. Like ‘media literacy’, the idea of rights becomes a matter of arming consumers to protect themselves, or to cope with the demands of a market-driven media system. Yet while individuals clearly do have responsibilities, so too do media companies, and governments. Rights are ultimately a political matter: they are about who is in charge, who controls the means of production, who is able to speak and to be represented, and whose voices are heard. We should all have media rights, but it’s not just our responsibility to claim them.