Proposed ‘rightful’ framework for Internet safety

Internet safety is a basic right of Internet users. But it’s not the only one. There are other fundamental rights that Net users of all ages have, and I propose that Internet safety will actually serve all Internet users better – and have much more relevance to the younger ones in our homes and schools – when we put it in context, in a framework of online rights.

It’s a framework for all users’ rights that was actually established in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and it leaped out at me while reading a paper by social psychology professor Sonia Livingstone in London and media professor Brian O’Neill in Dublin about how the Internet interfaces with the UNCRC: “Children’s rights online: challenges, dilemmas and emerging directions” (pdf).


“The three Ps”

Safety is one of the UNCRC’s three core principles, or “three Ps”: “protection, provision and participation rights.” For the first 20-or-so years of the “Internet safety” discussion in most developed countries, the focus has largely been on the Protection rights. We parents and educators need to give equal weight to children’s Provision and Participation rights, and I believe that our efforts to teach children safe, effective use of connected media will have more authenticity for them when we do.

Rights of provision

On the Internet, “provision” refers to literacy education and rich, child- and youth-appropriate content. There’s the right to access great places online for youth of all ethnicities, languages and socio-economic levels to learn, play and socialize. “Even within Europe, Internet use for many children remains narrow, unimaginative, centered on the reception of mass communication, with only a minority (typically the already advantaged) attaining the interactive, creative, participatory and civic vision that has been held out for the Internet,” Livingstone and O’Neill wrote.

As for literacy education, in today’s very social digital media environment, this right of provision necessarily encompasses media and social literacy as well as digital literacy. For effective participation in digital environments and this very networked world, they need the social skills provided by social-emotional learning as as well as the critical thinking and other protective properties of media literacy. Literacy supports young people’s Protection as well as Provision and Participation rights.

Rights of participation

As for children’s participation rights, they “include the right to be consulted in all matters affecting them,” according to the UN Convention. Other participation rights are “freedom of expression”; “freedom of thought, conscience and religion”; and “the freedoms of association and peaceful assembly.”

Interestingly, we think of “online reputation” as an Internet safety (or “protection”) issue, but in the UNCRC, it falls under the participation principle. Article 13, of the Convention states that children should have the freedom “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice,” but those freedoms are contingent, Livingstone and O’Neill point out, on respecting “the rights or reputations of others; and parents bear responsibility, under Article 18, in bringing children up to understand this.”

So reputation is a responsibility as much as a right, a shared responsibility, the CRC suggests, even though the Convention predated the Web. [The CRC was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1989 and went into effect in 1990 after the required number of countries had signed it, according to Wikipedia. The US has signed but not yet ratified it.]

Internet safety’s next phase?

So to move digital age safety – education and practices – forward, I propose that we 1) put it in its rightful framework (pun intended) and 2) consciously bring balance to the attention we as parents, educators and policymakers give the three Ps, supporting our children’s rights of provision and participation as well as protection – especially participation, because the default thinking always seems to be that their rights of thought, expression, association and participation run counter to their safety. When in fact,  empowering them with literacy, empathy and resiliency will inspire and serve them as active agents in their own well being as well as that of their peers, communities and societies in a networked world and all of its user-driven environments.

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Sidebar: Why participation rights are crucial

Here’s why our children’s rights of participation, expression and association cannot be swamped by our focusing on their rights of protection, summed up by Arizona State U. professor James Paul Gee, talking to Mind/Shift about the “time of great change and transformation” that represents our children’s futures:

“People and institutions will have to be resilient and change with change. They will have to gain very real skills with critical thinking and complexity in order not to be dupes and victims of the rich, corporations, media, and governments. They must become activists, knowers, producers, and participants and plug into and play with the right team of people and tools.

“This requires ethical thinking and a vision for a better world. People must become proactive, deliberate learners in and out of school and for their lifetimes. Good parents and good teachers must mentor them to be such deliberate, strategic, and ethical learners. Then people will face the future as gamers gaming systems to mod our world.” [In the US, anyway (and probably in most countries), 97% of 12-to-17-year-olds are digital gamers, according to the Pew Internet Project, and that was in 2008, before mobile games took off.]

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