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Children’s rights in the digital age

One hundred years on from the Geneva Declaration, ANDREA MILLWOOD HARGRAVE interviews PROFESSOR SONIA LIVINGSTONE on how the rights of children have evolved and why General comment No 25 of the UN convention, ‘children’s rights in relation to the digital environment’, is so significant

It is one hundred years since the first internationally recognised reference to children’s rights was drafted: the League of Nations1 adopted the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child in September 1924.2

Although the Declaration itself was not legally binding, it was important because of its emphasis on the child as part of society and because it afforded children their own rights, arguing that their needs must be met. By 1959, the League of Nations had been dissolved and the United Nations was now in its place.3 Following the two world wars there was an increased recognition of the effects of war on children and an acknowledgment that ‘the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration’ (Principle 2).4

Thirty years later, the Declaration, with its non-binding statement of principles, was superseded by the UN’s 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). This is a legally binding treaty which sets out a framework for the protection and promotion of the full range of the rights of children, including their right to be heard in matters that affect them.5

It would have seemed unimaginable to those drafting the Declaration one hundred years ago (or even to those doing so thirty years ago) that the landscape could change so much – and continues to change. The internet and the digital landscape in which it exists are now a central part of the structure of many children’s lives, affecting  how they think about themselves, their place in the world, their environments and beyond.6

To keep pace with these and other changes, the ‘Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC)… that monitors implementation of the Convention publishes its interpretation of the content of human rights provisions, known as general comments on thematic issues.’ 7

However, it was not until 2021 that General comment No 25 (2021) was adopted.  This looked specifically at ‘children’s rights in relation to the digital environment’. 8

Professor Sonia Livingstone led the drafting group for General comment No 25. Here, in response to a series of questions, she explains the genesis of the comment, why it is important and how it sits alongside the work of the many nations that have produced legal codes and regulations to manage the digital environment and support safeguarding measures for users, including children.

The interview

What was the catalyst that led to the need for General comment No 25?

Child’s rights are often an afterthought – but they should be no different from, and just as prominent as, all other human rights. Indeed, that importance is reflected in the UNCRC, the most widely ratified treaty on human rights that there is.

It is clear that digital technologies are changing, have changed, the world. This is especially significant for children, many of whom are growing up in a digital environment and have known nothing else.  These technologies form part of the very infrastructure of their lives. The internet now provides vital information about themselves and the world in which they live. Its cross-cutting nature affects their family life, their education and their views of the world, and it extends their opportunities for communication, participation and play in so many different ways.

We first started looking at the impact of the internet as it was entering homes in the UK, more than 25 years ago.9 Over the years, different stakeholders have taken on various aspects of the ‘child’s interests’ in this fast-changing environment, but the UNCRC and the general comment allow for coherence and cohesion, bringing the many strands together within a holistic rights-based framework.

What are the key elements of the general comment?

There have generally been two principal ways of addressing the issues around children and the internet:

  • The concern about the risks associated with children being exposed to matters thought to be unsuitable/inappropriate/harmful to children. The examples are many: pornography, exploitation, child trafficking, addiction, radicalisation and so on.
  • The recognition of the opportunities offered by digital technologies: expanding and augmenting access to education, offering opportunities to test the way in which the world might be negotiated, access to friends and family from whom one might otherwise be cut off, etc.

For the first 20 years of the internet, policymakers relied on industry self-regulation to work through the ways in which the internet functioned and was regulated. That was a period of optimism, when digital technologies were seen to offer so many opportunities in learning, work, politics and social connections.

In the last ten years or so, as the internet has become ubiquitous there is greater pessimism among many – especially those concerned about children’s rights – that industry and its commercial interests have put children to one side, or worse.

Every UN member state has signed the UNCRC and it falls to the state to ensure that all stakeholders (this includes industry) whose actions impact children meet their responsibilities under the UNCRC. (It shoud be noted that the United States has signed the Convention but is the only state not to have ratified it.10)

The general comments are also legally binding and outline how the UNCRC should be interpreted – and implemented – by the state. The importance of General comment No 25 is that it specifically considers children’s rights in relation to the digital environment.11 Developed in consultation with governments, experts and children, it offers actionable models to stakeholders and aims to ensure that all the interdependent aspects of a child’s rights in a digital environment are considered and appropriate and effective action taken.

You worked with several organisations (including, most centrally, 5Rights Foundation12 ) on this general comment. The work was informed by the experiences of users – in particular, children – of digital media, described as ‘lived experience’. Why was this so important and how did it add to the project?

Over the years, different bodies have sought to represent children’s interests and their rights in the emerging digital environment through consultations, meetings and action groups. Helplines have been set up to support children’s experiences online. Parents and educators have looked for information to help them support children but often they did not know how to respond, lacking the knowledge themselves. (This need for assistance was exacerbated by the COVID pandemic, when the internet became a lifeline for people – especially children – to stay connected to others.)

The general comment aims to bring together in one document the ways in which states – and therefore the stakeholders operating in their nations – should address children’s rights within a digital world.

That is part of the rationale. Another is that we did not really know what children, globally, with their diverse backgrounds and experiences, thought about the digital world and how it impacted them. This was a significant ‘missing piece’.

There is also a practical issue: the general comment system does not have a budget and requires external funding, either by UNICEF or by civil society. The 5Rights Foundation was invaluable in helping those working on GC25 to consult with children and other stakeholders. Full details of the consultation process can be found in the published comment itself. 13

Over 700 children and young people in 27 countries took part in 69 workshops.14 These workshops demonstrated how crucial it is to hear the voices of children and young people, since their ‘lived experience’ is often quite different from adults’ perceptions of their lives. The findings show how wrong it is to impose adult interpretations on actions designed to benefit children without first understanding how children might themselves approach that issue.

To give a couple of examples:

  • Gaming online: Adults (correctly) worry about addiction and negative contacts, but children see gaming as a way of interacting with others (probably of their age), a place for social community and interaction and as a way of building skills.
  • Looking at sexual content online: An adult might see the child’s interest in sexual images online as risky or harmful. But maybe that child has no one to ask about sexual matters and  is worried about their development or about their own sexual health.

None of this is to suggest that there should be a free-for-all or that children do not access harmful material but our research over many years (Global Kids Online15 ) shows that many children are aware of the dangers of accessing certain types of material online and sensibly seek to avoid them.

What are the barriers to the implementation of recommendations made in the general comment?

Children are demanding greater digital literacy. They want to understand the technology better, they want to know how to sift truth from falsehood, they want to understand the business models. And they want their parents and teachers and others who might assist them to have those digital skills as well. Otherwise they face a key barrier.

Policymakers also need to have the skills and understanding to implement the UNCRC and enable the introduction of children’s rights into the digital environment they are regulating.

There are increasing efforts to encourage change in policy development such as training engineers to consider children’s rights as they develop content, or regulators creating sandboxes to see how policies will play out in the ‘real world’.

Equally there needs to be enforcement. The steering committee of the UNCRC has powers to issue observations on the way in which a state is implementing the convention and can point to those areas where action needs to be taken.

Difficulties can arise in the case of a global treaty but there are examples of success. Data protection and privacy laws are an example of legislation and reforms being applied globally.16

It is unsurprising that there are national differences and difficulties. However, many countries have enacted or are considering national legislation to protect children’s rights. Most recently in the UK the Online Safety Act 2023 refers to the ‘duties of care’ that providers must accept when providing their online services to groups of users.17

Looking forward, what are the emerging issues that policymakers and child rights advocates need to focus on to enhance the protection and empowerment of children online?

It should be emphasised again that children’s rights are no less important than other human rights. That importance is reflected in the abundance of activity across nations and internationally that seeks to address children’s rights in relation to the digital environment.

But it is difficult to regulate for children if there is little or no information about how they negotiate the digital environment – hence the value of research. And those who are placed in a position of responsibility for their needs and interests – parents and other caregivers, educators –  may also lack the capacity to assist them, so they too should be supported. Industry and government must collaborate with other stakeholders to offer transparent family- and child-friendly access, resources, designs and support and not leave the outcomes to complaints procedures and negative consumer or civic action.

A brief history

The Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child was adopted in September 1924.18

This Declaration stated thatmen and women of all nations, recognizing that mankind owes to the Child the best that it has to give, declare and accept it as their duty that, beyond and above all considerations of race, nationality or creed:

(1) The child must be given the means requisite for its normal development, both materially and spiritually

(2) The child that is hungry must be fed; the child that is sick must be nursed; the child that is backward must be helped; the delinquent child must be reclaimed; and the orphan and the waif must be sheltered and succoured

(3) The child must be the first to receive relief in times of distress

(4) The child must be put in a position to earn a livelihood, and must be protected against every form of exploitation

(5) The child must be brought up in the consciousness that its talents must be devoted to the service of fellow men.19

In 1959, the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child went beyond the Geneva Declaration, setting out 10 principles, of which 2, 7 and (in part) 9, are especially relevant:

Principle 2: The child shall enjoy special protection, and shall be given opportunities and facilities, by law and by other means, to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity. In the enactment of laws for this purpose, the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration.

Principle 7: The child is entitled to receive education, which shall be free and compulsory, at least in the elementary stages. He shall be given an education which will promote his general culture and enable him, on a basis of equal opportunity, to develop his abilities, his individual judgement, and his sense of moral and social responsibility, and to become a useful member of society. The child shall have full opportunity for play and recreation, which should be directed to the same purposes as education; society and the public authorities shall endeavour to promote the enjoyment of this right.

Principle 9: The child shall be protected against all forms of neglect, cruelty and exploitation. He shall not be the subject of traffic, in any form.20

Ten years later the Declaration, with its non-binding statement of principles, became the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), a legally binding treaty which sets out a framework for the protection and promotion of the rights of children.21

The landscape for children is evolving rapidly, with access to information, to entertainment and to learning, all speeded up by the dynamic digital landscape with falling costs and the ability to ‘own’ personal access tools increasingly pervasive. The UNCRC is required to keep pace with these changes. A body of 18 independent experts monitor implementation of the Convention and publishes its interpretation of the content of human rights provisions, known as general comments on thematic issues.22

Andrea Millwood Hargrave

Andrea Millwood Hargrave is an independent consultant and a member of the working group on information access in UNESCO’s Information for All Programme (IFAP). She was previously director general of the IIC.

Sonia Livingstone

Sonia Livingstone is a professor in the Department of Media and Communications, London School of Economics and Political Science. She directs the Digital Futures for Children centre jointly with the LSE and 5Rights Foundation, and Global Kids Online with UNICEF Office of Research-Innocenti.

1 See League of Nations Overview, UN Archive.

2 Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child.

3 See History of the United Nations, UN Archive.

4 UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child (1959).

5 Livingstone S and Özkul D (2024). Identifying the “best interests of the child” in relation to the digital environment, 6 February.

6 There remain limitations on children’s access to digital technologies in many parts of the world.

7 Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR). Introduction to the Committee on the Rights of the Child.

8 OHCHR (2021). General comment No. 25 (2021) on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment, 2 March.

9 Livingstone S and Bovill M (2001). Children and Their Changing Media Environment, A European Comparative Study. Routledge.

10 See

11 Livingstone S and Bovill M (2001). Children and Their Changing Media Environment, A European Comparative Study. Routledge.


13 See note 8

14 Third A and Moody L (2021). Our Rights in the Digital World: A report on the children’s consultations to inform UNCRC General Comment 25.

15 United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Office of Research-Innocenti. Global Kids Online.

16 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Data Protection and Privacy Legislation Worldwide.

17 Online Safety Act 2023.

18 See note 2.

19 See note 2.

20 See note 4.

21 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989).

22 See note 7.