Digital Futures for Children - a new LSE and 5Rights centre


In case you missed the launch of Digital Futures for Children – a research collaboration between 5Rights Foundation and the Department of Media and Communications at London School of Economics and Political Science – you can watch it here.

DFC webinar 3

Digital Futures for Children (DFC) will support an evidence base for advocacy, facilitate dialogue between academics and policymakers, and amplify children's voices. Its remit is the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s General comment No. 25 – the authoritative statement on how to realise the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in relation to the digital environment.

Realising children's rights in the face of rapid technological innovation

The launch webinar was hosted by the amazing Kofi Amo-Agyei, a young campaigner from the GYG Committee, who asked LSE Professor Sonia Livingstone OBE, Director of Digital Futures for Children, what it is all about. As she explained, the new research centre builds on the groundbreaking work of the Digital Futures Commission, also a 5Rights/LSE collaboration, bringing together the research excellence of the LSE, a premier institution of the social sciences, and the powerful advocacy for systemic change by policy, regulation and design spearheaded by 5Rights Foundation.

Our expert panel – including Jennifer Kaberi, founder of Mtoto News in Kenya, and Pedro Hartung, a child rights lawyer and Executive Director of the Alana Foundation – was chaired by Baroness Beeban Kidron OBE, Founder and Chair of 5Rights Foundation, Chair of Digital Futures for Children. After setting out her reflections on the challenges for child rights advocacy in relation to digital providers, she led a discussion of ‘Realising children’s rights in the face of rapid technological innovation’, asking: 

  • What role do (and should) child rights play in redesigning and redeveloping the digital world?
  • How can realising children’s rights in a digital world benefit their lived experiences?
  • How are children’s experiences different in different parts of the world?
  • And what’s too often forgotten in deliberations over children’s rights and the digital environment?

We addressed some thorny questions in the panel, recognising that:

“Technology is biased in terms of where it’s been built. Most of the time it’s been built somewhere in San Francisco, or somewhere in Ireland, or somewhere in India… The people who are building will put their bias in it… For example, terms and conditions…they are not created with some demographics in mind…[or] with some cultures in mind.” (Jennifer Kaberi)

“There is such a muddle between a parent’s right to parent, …their understanding of technology and a child’s understanding of technology, and a child’s development stage that might impact on their wisdom of some of their choices; and this is a big circle of interdependencies, learning and discussion.” (Beeban Kidron)

“It’s about freedom, freedom and autonomy to not be pushed or persuaded from the very non-transparent tools that we should prevent children from being impacted by… How can we regulate that without having international governance? That’s why it’s so important that General comment 25 is seen as a common tool.” (Pedro Hartung)

“What we hear in our research and in consultations with children often is how they feel unwelcome, or blamed when something goes wrong, or invisible online, or somehow like they’re doing the wrong thing because they’re not meant to be where they are. So, the conditions that make them feel welcome, that make them feel like they are an agent, that they can speak up and that they have the right to be in those digital spaces…it’s also part of a child rights framework.” (Sonia Livingstone)

It’s a big agenda

In the week of World Children’s Day, the launch reminded us that children now live in a digital world. Their rights must be respected, protected and fulfilled in relation to the digital environment, and to bring this about, we need evidence to inform policy and fuel advocacy. As Pedro Hartung put it:

“When we talk about General Comment 25, actually it’s very robust and throughout the years they developed a lot of different mechanisms, concepts on children’s rights that we need to use - we don’t need to reinvent the wheel here... but I think we should understand the lack of education on children’s rights from us adults, that we don’t recognize children as subjects of rights.”

Although General comment No. 25 is just 10,000 words, its agenda is huge: children’s lives are increasingly impacted by technology and it’s part of the infrastructure, taken for granted but hardly neutral – being loved, valued and feared. Further, children’s lives can’t be disentangled from those of adults – so children’s digital lives matter to us all in more ways than one.

Building on prior consultations with children, we’ll be creating opportunities to hear from and work with children during the next few years. Note that we define children as 0-18 (UNCRC article 1). We define digital broadly – it’s always changing and innovating (as set out in the General comment). We define rights according to the Convention, taking a holistic approach that encompasses children’s participation, inclusion, agency and voice, privacy and protection from harm. We recognise the huge diversity in children’s circumstances around the world, along with the multiplicity of stakeholders who can and should provide for them, starting but not ending with the obligations of the state.

Evidence to inform policy and advocacy

Evidence matters - to avoid myths and to ground policy and practice. Research can tell us what’s widespread or rare, what’s changing or stable, who is affected or excluded, and which policies and initiatives are working or not. We’re also interested in the quality of the research so as to prioritise research that’s ethical, independent, methodologically rigorous, transparent, consultative and open access. Where researchers disagree (which is common in such a multidisciplinary space), we’ll try to deliberate and mediate. Where there are key gaps – and there are many – we’ll highlight these and see what can be done. Where good research isn’t sufficiently recognised, we’ll shine a light on it. This work must be global because, as Jennifer Kaberi said:

“The business model in the Global North is very different from what we have down here… Because you are receiving funding, you have a brilliant idea and they tell you ‘no, but you need to change your business model to look like this’, something very Western, and you’re implementing it on people in the Global South. It does not work.”

Our plans for the DFC

We ended the webinar with a note of our first year’s work plan:

  • Our first big commission – already underway – is to map the impacts on children’s rights of selected efforts to regulate digital providers.
  • We’ll examine the meaning, uses and challenges of the concept of “the best interests of the child” in relation to the digital environment (UNCRC article 3(1)).
  • We will begin to map evidence of the impact of General comment No. 25 – this might take several years!
  • In support of the above, we’re designing a research repository for use by researchers and research users, including criteria for evidence quality.
  • And we don’t want to forget our recent research on play in digital contexts, education data and child rights by design – so we’ll find ways to develop this also.

The launch was attended by 373 participants from 49 countries –participants were lively and engaged, asking lots of questions to the panellists and sharing ideas in the Zoom chat. It felt like a genuine international community of researchers, experts, policymakers and civil society. In undertaking our work, we’ll be guided by our wonderful advisors. Now we’d love to hear from you, so here’s an invitation for contributions and expressions of interest.