Two 2014 anniversaries that say reams about our kids’ futures

By Anne Collier

We don’t want to let 2014 slip away without marking two anniversaries that are very important to our children: those of an invention and a convention. This year was the 25th anniversary of Tim Berners-Lee’s release of his computer code creating the World Wide Web, now with some 3 billion users worldwide, and the 25th anniversary of the UN’s adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

“Both the Convention as a social innovation and the Web as a technical innovation have had transformative impacts and made the world a better place,” wrote Urs Gasser, executive director of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society in a UNICEF publication, “Taking Children Seriously” this fall – though, he adds, there is certainly a lot of work to do to close digital access and literacy gaps and ensure that children’s digital rights are upheld planet-wide.

A global consciousness + efficacy

The invention and the convention are inextricably connected, especially for our children, the people who are inheriting and preparing to run this shrinking networked world. Growing up with the global consciousness that a global network affords is now a given, but it won’t ensure safe, ethical, effective citizenship or stewardship of this planet without the rights enshrined in the convention. Our children’s digital rights are where the 25-year-old invention and convention intersect, and they must be informed of, not just afforded, their digital rights of…

  • Provision – digital, media and social literacy education for safe, effective use of today’s very social digital media
  • Protection – against violations of self, identity, privacy and intellectual and physical property online as well as offline
  • Participation – freedom of thought, expression, conscience, religion, and assembly online as well as offline

“The Web – an information-sharing model built on top of the Internet – has become the main technology through which children with access, skills and agency exercise the information and communication rights protected under the Convention,” Dr. Gasser wrote. But when researching youth digital ethics at the end of the last decade, his colleagues over at Harvard’s School of Education found that – at least in this country – young people had a notable lack of efficacy where digital media were concerned. Whether that’s because, since the Web’s early years, they have been represented mostly as either potential victims of the technology or bad actors on it we can’t know for sure, but it’s clear that this lack of efficacy can be corrected with the digital-age literacy education called for by this year’s report of the Aspen Task Force for Learning & the Internet, a sense of agency and a knowledge of their rights as citizens in the digital age.

From victimization to self-actualization

Digital, media and social literacy turn potential victims into protectors, informed citizens and change agents. They add self-actualization to global consciousness. They shift the focus from victimization to self-actualization.

In “Taking Children Seriously” Gasser proposes that we “engage young people across all relevant phases of contemporary debates on digital rights, including research, action and education, and evaluation.” We absolutely must do that, but it won’t happen if we don’t listen to them at least as much as we teach them – if we don’t stop asking leading questions about their use of digital media, questions based on our own perceptions and concerns (something that the EU Kids Online research project discovered it had been doing and started to correct a couple of years ago). We also need to be able to discern when young people are saying what they think we want to hear and to elicit thoughtful input.

Citizens informed of their rights

Because if we engage our young digital media and tech users meaningfully – especially in policymaking that concerns them (in accordance with Articles 12 and 13 of the UNCRC) – we’ll be able, in partnership with them, to write “treaties, laws and policies on digital rights that,” as Gasser wrote, are [not] disconnected from the realities” of their “increasingly digitally connected” lives.

So can we mark the anniversaries of these two planet-changing developments by “taking [our] children seriously” and resolving in 2015 to model and teach our children their rights of participation, provision and protection as citizens in this digital age?

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