Even tech-savvy children need guidance from parents, teachers and other caregivers if they are to maximize the benefits and avoid the harms.
The internet can transform children’s lives – for better or for worse. It can open up a new world of entertainment and information and allow children to learn in new and unexpected ways.
At the same time, it may also expose them to unknown and unprecedented dangers. There are concerns, for adults and children alike, that the internet can be used to invade personal privacy, peddle disinformation and pornography, and even threaten democracies.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child establishes that children have the rights to freedom of expression, to information and to play, but also the rights to privacy and to protection from harm.
There is no specific right to access the internet since the Convention was established when the internet was in its infancy.
But with more children around the world gaining access every day, the fulfilment of their rights will increasingly be shaped by what happens on the Internet. And given the extent to which opportunities are now made available online, restricted internet access can be seen as an indirect infringement of children’s rights.
For parents, teachers and all those with a duty of care to children, the first priority will always be their protection. But it is not yet clear what form that protection should take in regard to online risks.
There are relatively few reliable findings on the risks to children of using the internet or the harms they may experience as a result. Public and parental responses, therefore, tend to rely more on instinct than on evidence – with the risk that efforts to fend off the worst of the internet may also stifle access to the best it has to offer.
Importantly, protection alone is not enough. Children want to participate in the digital world, and doing so effectively requires the adult provision of access and support.
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