HC: The digital divide is leaving young people behind
29 March 2023
“We know that more children and young people than ever before are online, either at home or at school,” said UN Human Rights Chief Volker Türk. “You are the most connected age group around the world.”
However, this connection depends on where someone is born. According to Türk, the digital divide equates to 2.2 billion children and youth under 25 who don’t have access to the internet in their homes.
“It means that they are being left behind, unable to access education and training, or news and information that can help protect their health, safety and rights,” he said during the first ever child-led panel discussion on the rights of the child and the digital environment at the 52nd session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland.
According to UNICEF, access to the internet varies widely depending on country income group, the rural-urban divide, and household wealth. There is also a significant gap between high-income and low-income countries with 87 percent coverage compared to 6 percent.
Mariana, a 12-year-old Afro-descendant human rights defender and panel participant who lives with her family in the rural area of Cauca, Colombia, is worried the children in her village will be left behind. To prevent this, she said countries need to not just pay attention to children who live in big cities, but also to support rural areas where the resources are limited in providing children with technology and the Internet. Mariana also felt there is a lack of digital education for children to stay safe from online pornography, bullying and sexual harassment.
“I also think they need to create policies that are useful for all children, which are inclusive and that also recognize our diversity,” she said. “Because in the countryside there are girls and boys with dreams and desires to advance, like me, we need a little push!”
Protecting children who use the internet is a top for priority for Nidhi, a 14-year-old student, youth advocate and podcaster from India who is currently living in Malaysia. According to Nidhi, 1 in every 3 online users worldwide is a child, which makes data protection just as important for children as it is for adults.
“Most of the time, they don’t even know how to use online tools safely or preserve their personal information, which makes them extremely vulnerable,” she said.
It is estimated that 72 million pieces of personal data will be collected on every child around the world before their 13th birthday. This is just alarming.
Nidhi, Youth advocate
Nidhi said the practice of collecting more data than required amount is unethical and a violation of children’s online space. This is especially concerning when most children cannot understand the long-term consequences of giving away their personal information, she added.
When Nidhi was nine, she recalled how scared she was when she found a game on the internet.
“The image scarred me and while talking to my friends about this, I realized that many of them had the same experience that made us so afraid for years,” she said. “This is an example of how children can accidentally get exposed to content that is inappropriate.”
While this was a scary moment for her, she feels lucky to have a supporting family environment, but many children are left on their own to navigate the digital world. Last year, Nidhi visited a Somali Refugee community in Malaysia to volunteer at their community school.
“I realized that many children there, as much as they did not have access to the internet or devices, also had no knowledge whatsoever about online safety and how to be safe in the digital environment,” she said.
Kidus, 17, a child rights advocate in Ethiopia, said while digital technology provides opportunities for children, it also poses serious threats impacting their wellbeing such as sexual exploitation, prostitution, bullying, trafficking, labor exploitation, ethnic/race-based violence including, discrimination, intimidation, hate speech, and cyberaggression.
“A safe digital environment is a required for raising safe children,” he said. “That way, we can ensure the future generation to be holistically well, more productive, and peaceful.”
Türk called on governments and business to close the digital divide, which is driving discrimination and inequality even deeper.
“We need to strive for online environments that allow children to interact and grow, away from harmful and addictive online habits or relentless comparison with their peers,” said Türk.
He also stressed the importance of having children’s participation both online and offline.
“You cannot be reduced to a ‘user-base,’ effectively deprived of human agency,” he said.
Children’s rights must be protected both online and offline, including the right to be heard, he explained.
“I ask you today to imagine: what if we built an online world that was in the best interests of children, and where children can safely take advantage of every exciting opportunity technology can offer them?”