For good reasons, child and youth participation have become an inevitable, and perhaps even fashionable, dimension of private and public decision making in the safer and better internet ecosystem. In this contribution, we reflect on the promise and pitfalls of the involvement of children and young people in product and policy development cycles, while pointing to possible ways forward.
We will make our case building upon European Schoolnet’s recent experiences with consulting children and young people as part of the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) initiative1, which we coordinate on behalf of the European Commission.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has long argued, “appearing to ‘listen’ to children is relatively unchallenging; giving due weight to their views requires real change. Listening to children should not be seen as an end in itself, but rather as a means.”2
Borrowing from Laura Lundy’s Model of Participation3, our key point will be that good progress is being made to create opportunities for involvement. It is now common practice to give a voice to children and young people to express their views with an audience in place with a responsibility to listen. The main challenge, however, remains to ensure those views are acted upon, finding ways to increase the transparency of and accountability for important decisions made and the reasons why.
Child rights advocates often emphasise the need for all public and private stakeholders to draw upon genuine child and youth participation activities4 to understand and respond to risks and opportunities in the online world.
Educators should build upon the views, experiences, knowledge, and abilities of the groups they work with, exploring and testing which pedagogical or awareness-raising approach is most likely to make a meaningful difference. This is a matter of making the process inclusive, child-centred, and age appropriate, while ensuring that intended outcomes are relevant to the everyday lives of children and young people.
Likewise, parents and carers should engage in an open and ongoing dialogue, involving children and young people as active participants in the parental mediation process. They should sustain “an appropriate balance between the child’s protection and emerging autonomy, based on mutual empathy and respect, over prohibition or control.”5
Industry and policy makers have a responsibility to ensure children and young people can actively participate in decision-making processes that might impact their rights in a digital world, as enshrined in the Article 12 right to participation or right to be heard of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).6
FROM THEORY TO PRACTICE
As part of the Better Internet for Kids initiative, European Schoolnet has been coordinating several consultation activities on behalf of the European Commission, aiming to put into practice a rights-based co-creation and consultation approach, with industry players and policy makers.
From an industry point of view, talking to children and young people about the design and evaluation of services can be inspiring and can influence change at company level.
Within this context, “child-centred design refers to designing products for children by incorporating children’s perspectives, needs and rights at the heart of the design process.”7 If children are not involved as co-creators and designers when products and services for children are being created, the possibility arises that “companies end up basing their designs on myths and stereotypes, generational-gap fears and misunderstanding of children’s perceptions.”8
In celebration of Safer Internet Day 2020, six BIK Youth Ambassadors launched the #Pledge2Youth challenge9 in the presence of a group of company signatories to the Alliance to protect minors online.10
Based on a preliminary mapping of the apps and online services used most often by children and young people across Europe, the BIK Youth Ambassadors provided a first indication of priorities they see for the design of online platforms and services to ensure they are age appropriate for and meet the development needs of children and young people.
This resulted in a year-long work programme, organised in an online, decentralised, and industry-led manner. Five companies set a more specific goal or challenge to be resolved, following a pre-established protocol. They broke down a concrete business problem into a more specific set of challenges or tasks for children and young people to work on.
The table below briefly outlines the focus, aims, and methodology of the five challenges:
Likewise, from a public policy perspective, children and young people should have a voice in decision making when laws and measures concerning them are prepared and evaluated. Again, the notion of participation highlights the need for dialogue and information, so the views of children and young people can shape the outcome of such processes.
In line with this, European Schoolnet was tasked by the European Commission to organise the #DigitalDecade4YOUth consultation in preparation for a new European Strategy for a Better Internet for Children, published in spring 2022.11
In terms of process and results, the learnings from this line of public policy work are directly transferable to the private sector.
From March to August 2021, over 70 consultation sessions were carried out with support from the Insafe network of European Safer Internet Centres and a wider range of European online safety and child rights organisations.12
While the majority of groups consulted were adolescents (age 12-18), 21 out of 71 consultation groups primarily consisted of children under 12, with the youngest respondent being 5 years old.
To make the consultation process inclusive, substantial time and effort was invested to reach out to children and young people specifically in vulnerable and marginalised situations. As a result, 30 out of 71 consultation sessions included (at least some) children and young people with various types of disabilities (intellectual, hearing, visual and physical impairment), children and young people with emotional and behaviour problems, migrants, Roma children, children in care, LGBTQ+ children, children and young people from rural and isolated regions, and children from disadvantaged or dysfunctional families.
For each consultation session, a series of hands-on activities were organised, in participants’ national language, following a structured protocol building upon the following best practice principles.13
• Be transparent and informative.
• Participation should be voluntary.
• The work methods will be child-centred, age-appropriate, and youth-friendly.
• Participant views will be treated with respect.
• Participants will be able to address the issues they identify as important and relevant.• Participation will be inclusive.
• Facilitators will be trained.
• Facilitators will create a safe space where participants can choose to speak or not.
• Participants will be informed about how their views are being considered and used.
In this way, the voices of more than 750 children and young people across Europe were heard in a transparent and systematic way, gaining a better understanding of how the digital world impacts (the rights of) children and young people. It was clear from the consultation sessions that the internet plays a crucial role in almost every aspect of children’s and young people’s lives. It allows them to stay connected with friends and family, it offers various opportunities for entertainment and to escape boredom, and it presents an important source of information and learning.
Children and young people have a good understanding of both positive and negative aspects of the internet and a clear vision about which issues need to be tackled as a priority. They are able to form original and specific guidance and recommendations for various actors, including but not limited to policy makers and digital operators, on how this should be done in practice.
Interaction with friends and family
Digital media and entertainment
Figure 1. As part of the DigitalDecade4YOUth consultation, children
and young people were asked to draw a picture of the online activitythey liked most.
MOVING FORWARD WHILE AVOIDING PITFALLS
Both the #Pledge2Youth and #Digital- Decade4YOUth initiatives illustrate how participatory approaches can help industry and policy makers envision the way forward, building upon the needs, challenges, and opportunities children and young people see in the context of digitalisation.
Clearly, a lot of creative ideas and good practice experience exist to provide opportunities for involvement, giving a voice to children and young people to express their views in the presence of an audience with a responsibility to listen. At the same time, in our experience, many pitfalls lurk around the corner, for example:
- Time, effort and resources: While the process and outcomes of youth participation tend to be very rewarding, it requires careful strategic and operational planning, mindful of the practical and ethical hurdles that will inevitably arise.
- Representativeness, reliability, and validity: Because of how youth participation is typically organised, participants tend to be engaged, confident, and articulate, and they often do not represent the population of minors as a whole. Because context matters, results may often not replicate or apply across time or settings.
- “It’s complicated...”: While children and young people can be considered experts of their own experiences in the digital world, they may have less time (or appetite) for the erratic flow of corporate or political decision making. Equally, as they grow older, many personal and professional interests will compete for youth participants’ attention and interest. To keep the process going in a sustained manner, short- and long-term incentives need to be put in place. Proper recruitment, induction, peer- to-peer exchange, and outreach mechanisms can help to ensure continuity.
More fundamentally, given the wider strategic interests at stake, one could rightly wonder whether child-centric consultations and co- creation processes will have a structural impact on product and policy development cycles in a fast-innovating, highly commercialised, and globalised digital environment. To state the obvious: What happens if a child or youth perspective conflicts with the business or policy strategy? Regardless of the commitment and effort going into the #Pledge2Youth line of work, there is little tangible evidence of significant changes in terms of the products and services these companies provide.
Meanwhile, given the pace of EU policy making, it remains to be seen if the children and young people we closely worked with will end up feeling that their views have not only been listened to but also acted upon. #DigitalDecade4YOUth was just one part of many consultation steps to be taken in the revision of the European Strategy for a Better Internet for Children, with the views from a larger variety of other stakeholders also considered, and for good reasons.14
This is exactly why, in Lundy’s words, voice is not enough. In our view, one promising way forward is to require companies and governments to make youth participation part of so-called child rights impact assessments when a new digital product, service, or policy that may directly or indirectly impact children’s rights is designed, deployed, or evaluated.15
These impact assessments should primarily follow a risk-based, age-appropriate, safety- by-design approach, trying to anticipate and mitigate systemic risks to children’s rights, while factoring in existing or new inequalities that digital technology may reinforce or generate.16
At the same time, citizens in a digital world are entitled to expect more positive and aspiring standards. How will companies and governments ensure all children are able to access, create, and share a diversity of information and content? Will the product or policy foster opportunities for imaginative play and experimentation?17 Will it encourage children and young people to explore and develop their ideas, identities, and relationships in an open, constructive, and responsible manner?18
These are the kind of questions that can only be resolved in a meaningful way when the voices of children and young people are heard and listened to. To ensure transparency and accountability in terms of how the views of children and young people were taken into account and why action has proceeded in one way or the other, child rights impact assessments should be made public, with clear follow-up activities to ensure impacts are monitored and reassessed as necessary.
In the European policy landscape, the pressure on industry is clearly building, with various important legislative and regulatory initiatives launched or underway. This substantially raises the bar for digital service providers as the burden of proof is on their side to show that, indeed, the best interest of children and young people has been a primary consideration in the business development cycle. Those who get ahead of the curve today are likely to be tomorrow’s winners.