Protecting Children's Rights Online

June 11, 2020

In a world where an increasing number of activities are taking place online, protecting and supporting children's rights is more important than ever.

Digital engagement has become a natural and integral part of daily life for many children over the past decade. During the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 70 million children in the United States staying home, screen time has gone from an option to a virtual necessity. 

Internet access is needed to join online classes and to bring a sense of belonging by connecting children with their friends through virtual birthday parties and other normally in-person rites of passage. This increased reliance on connectivity also shines a spotlight on online risks like cyberbullying, mental health issues and data privacy. It has become, therefore, more critical than ever to discuss how to ensure children's rights online can continue to be fulfilled, especially during times of crisis.

Four-year-old Margot, sheltering at home in New York City during the COVID-19 pandemic, joined a video call with friends from her daycare center and their parents on March 30, 2020. © UNICEF/UNI316263/Bajornas

For the past five years, UNICEF and the LEGO Group have partnered to seek solutions to upholding children's rights, including co-developing a Child Online Safety Assessment tool that provides guidance to help companies understand their impact on children's rights. We continue to work together now to highlight the importance of child rights-based policies that strike the delicate balance between protecting children from online harm, while still allowing children to access the Internet and leverage the benefits of the digital world.

Using those principles, UNICEF USA and the LEGO Group co-hosted a virtual discussion on Elevating Children's Online Rights During Times of Uncertainty. During the discussion, we explored the challenges and opportunities facing children in the U.S. and, importantly, our responsibilities to ensure children's rights online are fullfilled during this crisis.

The discussion brought together representatives from academia, education, government, civil society and the private sector. Panelists included Josianne Galea Baron (UNICEF), Tami Bhaumik (Roblox), Melissa Cleaver (Omaha Public Schools), Ariel Fox Johnson (Common Sense Media), Peder Magee (U.S. Federal Trade Commission) and Anna Rafferty (The LEGO Group). The panel was moderated by Sandra Cortesi (Harvard University's Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society).

On the morning of March 17, 2020 in Connecticut, 8-year-old Luka completes a reading assignment as part of his second grade class’s distance learning curriculum after local schools were closed indefinitely. © UNICEF/UNI313416/McIlwaine

The 3-tiered access challenge: devices, Internet and high-quality content

Almost immediately, the panel addressed the estimated 12 million children in the U.S. who currently do not have access to a basic broadband connection. Common Sense Media's Ariel Fox Johnson called it a three-tiered challenge: "Access to the internet, access to devices, and access to high-quality content." She emphasized that, in order to be meaningful, any solution should capture all three aspects of access.

Melissa Cleaver illustrated the impacts of inequity with an example from one of the Omaha public schools in her district, where many of the parents are essential workers. This results in children only being able to use their parents' cell phone or Internet-connected device to access remote learning sites late in the evening when parents have returned from work. She explained that while some children are thriving because they have the resources needed to access all three tiers, others fall behind. Research indicates that extended school closures could cause serious academic setbacks for students struggling to adapt to remote instruction, a syndrome educators call the "Covid Slide." 

Although the academic year has ended for many students across the country, these issues will remain key as school districts make plans for the fall, which may very well  include some form of distance learning. 

The need to understand the impact of digital media on children

For children with access to digital resources, the larger question is how technology — and all of the additional time online — is impacting children's lives, their rights and broader well-being. How can organizations better understand this impact and develop new products and services that deliver in the best interests of children? "We are careful about striking a balanced diet of screen time and real-life play," said The LEGO Group's Anna Rafferty. "It is an important principle of design of ours, that it's not just about keeping children online longer."

Understanding the impacts of digital technology on children is essential to aid public and private sector entities to engage in a responsible manner. "We need to understand more about children's online experiences, including the factors that may make certain children more vulnerable and what interventions work to prevent harm," said UNICEF's Josianne Galea Baron. This virtual event confirmed that while the private sector, government, educators and civil society have begun to address the challenges facing children online, the present crisis represents an opportunity to place children and their relationship with technology in the spotlight.

More research is necessary to deepen our understanding of the impact of digital technology on children's rights and well-being. That is why UNICEF USA has formally endorsed the CAMRA Act, a bipartisan bill that provides funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study these areas. The LEGO Group, Microsoft, Common Sense Media, the National Parent Teacher Association and many others endorsed the CAMRA Act when it was introduced in 2019.

We encourage everyone to join us in protecting and supporting children's rights online during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond:

Sarah Jacobstein is Child Rights & Business Specialist at UNICEF USA. Carolina Giuga is Director of Government & Public Affairs, Americas, The LEGO Group.

Top photo: On April 2, 2020, Yolanda, 9, participates in one of her first virtual classes while studying from home in New York City, after in-person classes were suspended in mid-March to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. © UNICEF/UNI320494/Elias