Farida ShaheedBiography
Cultural Rights of Children and Young Adults in the Digital World

In an increasingly digitalised world, the lines dividing online and offline life are blurring to such an extent that for many, especially the young, such a distinction is meaningless. In many parts of the world, innumerable aspects of everyday life are digitally dependent: from taking a bus ride to completing school assignments, from grocery shopping to planning holidays. In many instances, social life, especially of the young, seems digitally driven. Digital spaces and tools have become a priority for self-expression as well as seeking information, entertainment, or likeminded people. What does this mean for those officially classified as children, including young adults less than 18 years of age? Although some services have clearly stated and published age restrictions,1 in reality, ever younger people are digitally active, a “large and growing number of children aged 12 and under are using social media networks, often with their parent’s knowledge and consent”.2 Even toddlers engage with the digital world. This essay considers a few challenges in promoting children’s rights while safeguarding their security and privacy from the perspective of cultural rights as human rights, that apply equally to children as adults.

Cultural rights have two essential and interdependent dimensions, both connected to our sense of self and world visions. The first is grounded in the notion of free creativity, including the freedom indispensable for artistic creativity,3 scientific inquiry and technological inventiveness. The second is people’s right to access and contribute to both cultural heritage and new thinking. Rights start with the foundational right to access, take part in and contribute to cultural life in all its facets. Access is not confined to one’s own cultural life and heritage, however that may be defined, but includes the right to access and benefit from the cultural heritage, cultural life and creativity of humankind as a whole. The right to participate includes the right not to participate in any practice, ritual or process that undermines human dignity. The right to contribute means having the necessary resources, material conditions and opportunities to fully explore and develop one’s creative abilities and to share these with others, both digitally and otherwise.

A first challenge concerns access. Increasingly, digital connectivity is a privileged vehicle for self-expression, social interaction, accessing information and opportunities. But access is not equal due to the lack of necessary infrastructure as well as striking language imbalances. English accounts for just over a quarter of all Internet usage (25.3%), fairly close to the one third of global native English speakers (371 million). In contrast, communication in Hindustani and Bengali, with 329 and 242 million native speakers respectively, is virtually invisible.4 Almost two-thirds of the world’s population lives in Asia, but Asian languages account for only 27% of internet communication, a mere 7% without Mandarin Chinese. From a cultural rights perspective, spaces that promote pluralism, debate and dissent, in which everyone can participate and contribute equally without fear, are vital. If young people cannot access digital spaces in their own language, how can they engage, participate fully or contribute in the digital world or know about their rights? Access brings other challenges as well.

Cultural rights protect the rights of each person regardless of age: individually, in community with others, and as groups, to develop and express their humanity, worldviews, understanding of life and development, and to pursue specific ways of life.5 This demands freedom of expression, belief and creativity in material and non-material forms for all people, young and old. It means that everyone has the right to forge their identity and be part of multiple communities at once; to join, leave and create new communities of shared cultural values, including digital communities, and to leave without fear. Hence, children as others have the right to challenge a cultural identity they may not desire, including those of their cultural heritage. As children increasing rely on the digital world for direction and self-expression, this may lead to tensions and confrontations within the family, with implications for children’s security.

The nature of the digital world itself poses its own problems. Digital services are driven by commercial interests of profit derived in large part from advertising and harvesting personal data sold to advertisers. The advertising industry imposed exogenous, partly alien ways of life on people by restructuring consumption habits long before the digital age,6 and rising consumerism promoted by skilful advertising continues to significantly impact local cultures.7 Our senses are constantly bombarded by commercial advertising and marketing practices systematically deploying a wide array of tools and methods that impact cultural and symbolic landscapes towards a sameness. Quickly adapting to new technologies, overt and less overt messaging makes it difficult to recognize and distinguish between commercial advertising and other content. The Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed concern that children may regard advertisements as truthful and unbiased, and recommended that States adopt appropriate regulations, encourage business enterprises to adhere to codes of conduct and use clear and accurate product labelling and information that allow parents and children to make informed decisions.8 However, informed decisions are difficult when parents as well as teachers are less digitally savvy and literate than young adults and even children. This is further complicated when parents or teachers have had no or little access to the digital world and by the bewildering pace at which digital technologies and services are developing. Clearly, there is an urgent need to develop and enhance media literacy in schools and assess the effectiveness of such programmes, but how does one educate parents?

Commercial advertising can deeply influence people’s philosophical beliefs, aspirations, cultural values and practices, from food consumption models to burial rituals, tastes and beauty canons. Using advances in behavioural sciences, advertising concentrates on the link between emotional responses and decision-making; it plays on subconscious desires around happiness, youth, success, status, luxury, fashion and beauty, suggesting that solutions to human problems lie in individual consumption and status symbols. Children who are still developing their sense of self and ideas are particularly vulnerable. How do we ensure that digital services and spaces nurture children’s creativity and self-expression while instilling critical thinking and a spirit of inquiry?9

As UN Special Rapporteur, I recommended that all forms of advertising be prohibited to children under 12, regardless of the medium, support or means used, but how to achieve this in the digital environment remains unclear. Regulations are challenged by advertisers’ ingenuity; online regulations lag behind offline regulations, enabling companies to dodge the law by relocating advertising to digital spaces. Increasingly commercial messaging is digital and difficult to avoid in a digitalized world. They use electronic devices, such as computers, tablets, mobile phones, digital billboards and games to disseminate; viral and social media advertising/marketing proliferate using social networks or contracting individuals to enter online communication forums to specifically promote a product; products or services are embedded in programmes, music, videos, and games; branded/sponsored content is designed to appear as editorial-like content. In tandem, online advertising tracks consumers’ online activities to supply them with targeted advertising. Disturbingly, many advertisers claim to use neuro-marketing, including brain imaging, to elaborate advertising and marketing strategies.

The free sharing of ideas and world visions is essential, but so too is guaranteeing the ability of individuals to choose freely. Ever-more sophisticated advertising and marketing strategies, promoting codified messages with unmatched outreach, cultivate certain values. These become significant reference points for children’s perceptions about themselves, others and the world,10 shaping the sociocultural framework within which people think, feel and act.11 For the digitally connected, especially children and young adults, digital platforms, in particular social media, increasingly drive a sense of self and validation. This can be a source of strength and affirmation but equally of rejection and dejection. For example, the young in particular are so influenced by beauty concepts and digitally enhanced imaging that States have introduced regulations on stereotypes and body image in advertising, requiring disclosures when images have been digitally modified.12

The increasingly blurred line between commercial advertising and other content, the myriad advertisements and marketing communications received through digital services, and the resort to neuro-marketing aimed at circumventing individual rational decision-making are worrying, especially with regards to children. Of equal concern is that the represen-tation of violence reinforces the efficiency of advertisements (individuals subjected to emotional stress retain messages delivered better): biochemical reactions make people more inclined to consume food with a high fat and sugar content.

The power of advertising to influence individual choices demands a careful assessment of the digital means advertisers use in the light of children’s right to privacy, freedom of thought, opinion and expression, and their right to participate in cultural life, as enshrined in international human rights covenants.13 The regulation of commercial advertising and marketing practices should accord with the principles enunciated in international and regional instruments:14 practices must be subject to limitations such as those provided for in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, especially restrictions necessary to ensure respect for the rights of others. More effective safeguards are needed for children, but digital companies, better resourced than many countries, remain absent from human rights arenas and discussions. Nonetheless, countries where these companies are registered have a due diligence obligation to ensure they do no harm. But the advertising industry is not the only issue.

In our digitalized world the use of digital services to circulate images of children by friends and parents needs to be examined, in particular the alarming desire to monetize such images. To become viral or have sufficient hits or followers requires images to be funny or trigger other emotions. Children may be unhappy with the images. At what age should children be included in the decisions? When can they ask for such images to be removed? What would be the procedure? How to deal with the consequences for intra-family relations are only some of the immediate questions that arise and deserve attention. In particular, data privacy regulations are needed for data collected and images and other posts shared digitally.

From a human rights perspective there are many questions that deserve attention, starting with how to ensure that the digital world is not creating huge disparities in the world of children and young adults. How do we balance the freedom and facilities children need for self-realization and self-determination with the rights of parents and other family members? Finally, without equal access and equal say in matters, can young adults and children really be considered as citizens with rights?

Farida Shaheed is the Executive Director of Shirkat Gah-Women’s Resource Centre in Pakistan and is the former UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights. She has worked for over thirty years promoting and protecting cultural rights, providing expertise to the United Nations and development agencies, as well as the Government of Pakistan, seeking to foster policies and projects designed to support the rights of marginalised sectors, including women, children, and religious and ethnic minorities. She has received numerous national and international human rights awards for her contributions.