Child Consultation and Responsible Business Conduct in the Digital Environment:

Rights, Risks, and Opportunities

Written by Josianne Galea

Baron  & Fabio Friscia

From misinformation to online safety, the child rights impacts of digital technologies have been brought into sharp focus during the COVID-19 pandemic1. Increased attention is now being paid to the accountability of companies for human rights impacts related to their digital projects, products, and services2. This contribution sets out crucial steps for businesses to take when conducting child consultations in the context of identifying and accounting for their child rights impacts in the digital environment. It also focuses on potential risks involved in such consultation activities, along with practical considerations for companies to ensure they are appropriate and conducted safely and meaningfully.

Understanding Child Consultation As a Form of Participation

The right of all children to be heard and taken seriously is one of the fundamental values of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child3. The modes of child and adolescent participation can be conceptualised as ‘consultative’, ‘collaborative’, and ‘child/adolescent-led’, depending on the level of engagement and influence in decision-making (see Figure 1). While the term ‘child’ refers to a person under 18 years of age, needs and capacities evolve greatly within this range. Consequently, in implementing the concepts presented below, adjustments would be needed to respond to the specificities of the target age group and the capacities of the children being consulted. While governments have the primary responsibility to create an enabling environment that allows the views of children to be heard, other actors also have responsibilities to listen to children’s views and take these seriously, including those in the business sector. The Committee on the Rights of the Child has stated that ‘it can be critical for business to seek the views of children and consider them in decisions that affect them.’5 ‘Consultative’ modes of participation are particularly relevant to human rights due diligence processes conducted by companies to ‘know and show’6 they respect human rights, including children’s rights (which apply equally in the digital environment as they do offline).7

Figure 1: Modes of Participation8

Child Consultation As a Core Component of Child Rights Due Diligence

Child consultation by companies can serve multiple objectives, including informing the development of company policies, feeding into the company’s broader sustainability strategies and long term goals, or developing appropriate grievance and remediation mechanisms.9 From the perspective of children, participation in consultation activities can serve as a channel through which to draw attention to issues they are experiencing in digital environments and create opportunities for growth (provided all the required measures around ensuring safe and meaningful consultation are put in place as a prerequisite – see below).

Business and human rights frameworks imply that companies, including those providing digital products or services accessed by children, should consult with rights-holders as a core component of responsible business conduct. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) state the process of gauging human rights risks by companies should ‘involve meaningful consultation with potentially affected groups and other relevant stakeholders’.10 Building on the UNGPs, the Children’s Rights and Business Principles (CRBPs) also state companies should identify and assess any actual or potential adverse impact on children’s rights, including through ‘meaningful consultation with children and other potentially affected groups and relevant stakeholders’.11

With respect to technology, Human Rights Impact Assessment (HRIA) or Child Rights Impact Assessment (CRIA) as aspects of human rights due diligence are rapidly gaining momentum. The HRIA process involves meaningful participation of affected or potentially affected rights-holders through local and context-sensitive approaches.12 The Committee on the Rights of the Child has also confirmed that ‘parties should require the business sector to undertake child rights due diligence, in particular to carry out child rights impact assessments’ in relation to the digital environment.13 This is a promising trend. Children have unique perspectives on digital technologies that cannot always be seen and articulated by their adult representatives. Because children are a vulnerable population, it is also possible that a business activity that does not impact the rights of adults does adversely impact the rights of children.14

However, consulting with children as part of CRIAs or related activities must meet minimum standards to have significance. For example, ensuring diversity and representation in consultation activities is paramount.15 This means selecting children to be consulted must follow a sampling method that ensures representation of children in the most vulnerable situations (while also accounting for the fact that children who are not direct users of services may still be negatively impacted by them). Translating consultation activities into positive change also requires companies to remain accountable for acting on the impacts surfaced.

Practical Implementation: Risks and Key Pointers for Meaningful Consultation

If not implemented safely and ethically, consultation by companies can result in more harm than good. Having explored the rationale for and expectation of companies to consult with children in relation to impacts within the digital environment, it becomes critical to explore how these activities can be carried out.

In General Comment Number 12, the Committee on the Rights of the Child expands on nine basic requirements that must be respected for participation to be meaningful and safe, stating all processes in which children are heard and participate must be: transparent and informative, voluntary, respectful, relevant, child-friendly, inclusive, supported by training, safe and sensitive to risk, and accountable.16 One critical consideration for companies to prioritise in relation to the ‘safe and sensitive to risk’ criteria is safeguarding. UNICEF’s ‘Child Safeguarding Toolkit for Business’ provides guidance and practical tools for developing a child safeguarding programme, with relevance to any consultation activities.17

In addition to the nine basic requirements outlined above, four essential features of meaningful child participation must be put into place:

Space: Children need safe and inclusive opportunities to learn about the issue and discuss it with each other.

Voice: Children should be able to use the media of their choice to communicate their views and to negotiate decisions.

Audience: Children’s views must be respectfully heard by those with the power and authority to act on them.

Influence: Children’s views should receive proper consideration, and children should receive timely feedback about the outcome(s) and the extent of their influence.18

When it comes to implementing these features, there are a number of concrete actions companies should consider before, during, and after consultation. To help companies get started, some of these considerations are set out below.19

BEFORE Consultation

Ensuring that direct consultation with children is appropriate (as opposed to triangulation with other sources) and conducting prior engagement with child rights stakeholders and experts to help identify facilitators.20

Ensuring the company has a genuine motivation to engage (e.g., for the purposes of understanding impacts vs. for the purposes of tokenism or publicity) and intention to act upon outcomes.

Ensuring voluntary participation, with informed assent from children and informed consent from parents/guardians, and ensuring individuals are aware they can opt out if they change their mind.

Supporting representation and participation of children of different genders, ages, abilities, ethnicities, geographies, and backgrounds, with proactive efforts to include children from marginalised groups.

Ensuring children know their rights and know who to report to if they feel uncomfortable, unsafe, or unwell.

DURING Consultation

Respecting children’s time commitments to study, work, perform family/household duties, engage in leisure, etc., and plan activities at times that suit them.

Creating space and modalities for adults to respond to children’s questions and recommendations. Be transparent with children about which decisions they are and are not able to influence (and which may be uncertain!)

AFTER Consultation

Ensuring managers share feedback with children about the extent to which they have acted upon their insights and advice (along with a summary of the points captured to make sure children’s views were interpreted accurately, as well as an explanation for why certain suggestions may have been rejected). This requires follow-up meetings, emails, calls, and/or SMS.

For further guidance, UNICEF has created a tool for companies on “Engaging Stakeholders on Children’s Rights” that offers practical guidance applicable to all companies.21 The tool points out that companies should partner with third-party facilitators and the local community to plan for the consultation with considerations given to child protection, location, accessibility, timing, logistics, and facilitation. While not designed for an industry audience, further direction and inspiration can be taken from UNICEF’s risk assessment tool for adolescent participation22 and guidance on ethical research involving children.23

Future Directions

Consulting children as part of child rights due diligence in relation to the digital environment is not only increasingly expected of companies to demonstrate responsible conduct, but also promises to be a valuable tool in identifying and managing child rights risks arising from digital technologies, while creating value for business.

While several pointers on implementation are outlined above, many questions remain. For example:

  • What do companies need to feel confident implementing appropriate child consultations as part of child rights due diligence processes safely and ethically?
  • How often (or at what trigger points) should companies consult with children given the rapidly evolving nature of technology?
  • When can consultation be considered representative of the diversity of children’s experiences of digital products and services across regional contexts?
  • When it comes to the design of new digital products and services, is consultation sufficient to ensure respect for children’s rights, or should children be involved continuously via collaborative modes of participation throughout the process?

Answering these questions will require action from industry professionals to demonstrate efforts and share their methods and results, with research and sustained multi-sectoral collaboration. As children’s engagement with digital technologies, from education to entertainment, continues to grow over the coming years, action on these issues could not be more urgent or timely.