Amandeep Singh GillBiography
Being a Child in the Digital Age

Today, children and adolescents under the age of 18 make up one third of all Internet users.1 They are also the most connected age group: 71% of young people between the ages of 15 and 24 are online, compared to just 48% of the total population.2 Children and young people are not only consumers of digital content but they also generate significant data through gaming apps and platforms such as Instagram and YouTube. 

As children continue to go online at increasingly younger ages and have growing access to connected devices of their own, we have seen unforeseen consequences of use, ranging from children’s sexual exploitation and bullying online, to distraction at school and at home. There are new trends in abuse such as ‘on-demand’ and crowd-sourced production of sexually-explicit material, encrypted offender communities, as well as live-streaming, grooming and sextortion.3 In some cases, children are victims as well as offenders.

One trend that worries me personally like no other is the impact of engaging with the world through screens, on children’s minds and bodies. There is more than anecdotal evidence that deep thinking and focus are being impacted as children spend less time reading books and wrestling ideas with peers and adults. There is also evidence that the delicate balance in education between head, hand and heart is being disturbed. Any number of physical education teachers will tell you that children have more difficulty catching balls today, there are growing sleep and posture-related health issues, and school counsellors struggle to keep up with children with emotional difficulties. 

Human rights such as those enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) have been traditionally addressed to States, which have a duty under international law to uphold them, and protect children. The circle of impact upon private companies was limited. This has changed with digitalisation. Online platforms, developed privately, function now as global digital public infrastructure, and algorithms designed in one place can impact decisions and behaviour in other geographies. And unlike other industries, digital companies can impact the rights of millions at once. That they operate seamlessly across borders complicates governmental efforts to work with them, to protect the human rights of users within their jurisdiction. 

Apart from issues around the protection and promotion of children’s rights and privacy, there are issues of equal opportunity. In 2030, of the 8.55 billion global population, 39% (equivalent to 3.31 billion) will be young people under 25 years of age and 24% (2.03 billion) will be children under 15.4 Almost one-third of children and young people will live in Africa. These digital natives could be a huge asset given the right educational and economic opportunities. However, if existing inequalities continue to fester and are allowed to intersect with new digital divides around access and agency, the asset of digital natives could turn into a liability. There is therefore an urgent need to promote lifelong learning alongside quality content and skills needed to thrive in a world of AI and data systems. 

How can we manage the risks of digital technologies for children, and deploy them in a way that promotes their wellbeing? How can we make certain that children grow to be lifelong learners and have the skills needed to succeed in the digital economy? How can we ensure that childhood is not overwhelmed by digital devices and content; just as disease, poverty and exclusion overwhelmed the joys of childhood for millions in the past? 

This is a formidable task. For one, it cannot be achieved by a single government or organisation alone. We would need an unprecedented level of collaboration across the public, private, tech and civil society sectors to get it done. Political will would need to be mobilised for this collaborative effort, which should go beyond the child online safety framework that has been at the center of efforts thus far.

Second, we need research and evidence-based consensus around key concerns. This should include new metrics and new ways of measuring children’s wellbeing in the digital age, as well as policy research on how – and under what conditions – digitalisation would help children flourish.

Third, we need concrete guidance on how to safeguard children’s rights under existing covenants and national laws in the course of digitalisation. We already have useful principles to help companies evaluate their responsibilities for protecting children.5 The 5Rights Foundation has outlined further principles as a minimum requirement for children to enjoy a respectful and supportive relationship with the digital environment.6 The UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation noted some good practices on strict design and data consent standards for online services and apps used by children.7 The Committee on the Rights of the Child is working on a General Comment on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment.8

Finally, we need to empower the children themselves through education and respectful dialogue. I have experienced this power of agency first-hand when discussing digitalisation in school with children. A middle school student came up with an interesting distinction between watching a story online and reading about it. “When we read, we can stop and make our own story. When we watch a video, we are in someone else’s story.” Our schools need to develop imaginative programmes to develop digital literacy and agency going beyond the teaching of ICT skills. 

We owe it to them. After all we put this technology in their hands without sufficient forethought. 

Amandeep Singh Gill is former Executive Director and Co-Lead of the Secretariat of the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation, and former Chair of the Group of Governmental Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems. In follow-up to the Panel’s report, he is currently leading a new multi-stakeholder initiative for establishing an international collaborative on Digital Health and AI research. He also serves as a Commissioner on the newly launched Lancet and Financial Times Commission on ‘Governing Health Futures 2030: Growing up in a digital world.’