The Rights of the Child in the Digital Environment: Importance in Africa and the World
The continental theme for the 2023 Day of the African Child was “The Rights of the Child in the Digital Environment”. African Union Member States are at liberty to customise the theme to fit their local context. Uganda’s national theme was “Promoting and Protecting Children’s Rights in the Digital Era”.
As a result of the Digital Revolution, internet access and usage has been increasing globally. As of May 2022, there were about 590 million users (43% internet penetration) in Africa. These figures include children, who represent a third of all internet users in the world. Uganda has not been left behind in the digitisation race. Digital Evolution has been picking up pace in Uganda since 1986.
According to the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) 2022 1st Quarter (January-March) Market Performance Report, there are 23.5 million broadband (internet) connections in the country. The digital revolution has therefore brought immense opportunities and challenges for children worldwide. As they navigate the online realm, it becomes crucial to protect their rights and ensure their well-being.
The Digital Environment and Children's Rights:
The digital environment encompasses the internet, social media, mobile devices, and various digital platforms. While these technologies offer numerous educational and social benefits, they also expose children to potential risks, including cyberbullying, online harassment, inappropriate content, and privacy breaches. Upholding children's rights becomes imperative to create a safe and empowering online space.
Universal Children's Rights
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) serves as the cornerstone for protecting children's rights globally. It guarantees children's right to life, education, health, and protection from exploitation. These rights apply equally to the digital environment, emphasizing the need to ensure children's safety and well-being online.
The African Context
In Africa, the digital divide presents unique challenges to the realization of children's rights. Limited access to digital technologies and internet connectivity restricts children's opportunities for learning, participation, and social interaction. Bridging this digital divide is crucial to empower African children and enable them to benefit from the digital world's opportunities. Access has since increased because of Covid and online learning which required more children to access the digital space. Children have access to ICT devices. While ownership was low (39.5% were found to own mobile phones, 8% owned television sets and 7% laptop computers), access was high as over 75% had access to at least one ICT device. The most accessed ICT device was the mobile phone, accessed by 78% of children, followed by radio (74%), television (68%) and laptop computers (29%). Other owned or accessed devices included computers, cameras, tablets/iPads, and video game sets. More children in the urban setting were found to own mobile phones and laptop computers, while more children from the rural setting owned television sets. (The AfriChild Centre, 2018)
Digital Rights and Education
Access to quality education is a fundamental right for every child. In the digital age, leveraging technology in education can bridge educational gaps and provide equal learning opportunities. Promoting digital literacy and ensuring children have access to educational resources online is crucial for their development and future success.
Protecting Children Online
Children must be shielded from harmful content, cyberbullying, and exploitation in the digital space. Governments, organizations, and parents must collaborate to implement effective measures such as age-appropriate content filters, online safety education, and robust legal frameworks to prevent and address online abuse. Encouraging responsible digital citizenship can empower children to make informed decisions online.
Balancing Privacy and Protection
Children have the right to privacy, and their personal information should be safeguarded in the digital environment. Striking a balance between protecting children's privacy and ensuring their safety is essential. Strict data protection regulations and parental consent mechanisms can play a pivotal role in safeguarding children's personal information online.
Empowering Children's Participation
Children have the right to express their opinions and participate in decisions affecting their lives, including those in the digital realm. Encouraging their active involvement in shaping digital policies and promoting child-friendly platforms that prioritize their needs and aspirations are vital steps toward realizing their rights.
Protecting children's rights in the digital environment requires collaborative efforts among governments, civil society organizations, technology companies, educators, and parents. Partnerships can facilitate the development of comprehensive policies, innovative technologies, and educational programs that prioritize children's well-being and safety online.
Safeguarding the rights of the child in the digital environment is of utmost importance in Africa and globally. By ensuring children's safety, privacy, and participation online, we create an inclusive and empowering digital space where children can thrive, learn, and contribute to society. It is our collective responsibility to prioritize children's rights in the digital age and equip them with the necessary skills and knowledge to navigate the digital world safely. Together, we can build a brighter future for every child in Africa and beyond.
There is a need to provide information to children that enables them to make informed choices, avoid risks and find and offer help when needed; Introducing effective reporting mechanisms such as hotlines, report abuse functions and online supports to pre-empt abusive situations. Strengthen parental capacities to protect children through programmes that inform parents about the benefits and risks associated with ICT, strategies that children and young people can adopt to keep safe, potential sources of help, and the importance of dialogue and engagement with their children.
Multiple studies have been conducted about ICT-based VAC and its effects, and models of intervention developed to guide actors in tackling the complex challenges. However, many of these have been undertaken in countries beyond Africa. Context-specific models are necessary to ensure the effective protection of children from ICT-based exploitation. There is not much research in Uganda about the effects of ICT-enabled sexual abuse exploitation and other forms of violence on school performance, retention, and overall child well-being or on how ICT is being utilized to achieve more in preventing VAC in schools. Children, parents, schools, local government duty bearers and law enforcement units such as the police have limited or no knowledge at all in preventing and responding to ICT-enabled sexual abuse, exploitation, and other forms of violence.