As we celebrate digital citizenship week, there will be a lot of discussion about good online behavior, including treating others with respect. And that’s certainly a very important part of what it means to be a good citizen, whether “digital” or otherwise.
But it’s also useful to look up the definition of “citizen” and for that I turned to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary:
noun \ˈsi-tə-zən also -sən\
: a person who legally belongs to a country and has the rights and protection of that country
: a person who lives in a particular place
As you can see, at least this short definition starts out with rights and protection and I would argue that any discussion of digital citizenship needs to include rights as well as responsibilities.
When it comes to children, those “rights” are actually codified by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by every country in the world except Somalia, Southern Sudan and the United States (1).
The rights outlined in the Convention cover a wide variety of issues but are very clear when it comes to children’s free speech, right to access media, right of assembly and right of privacy.
- “Freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice (article 13)
- The rights of the child to freedom of association and to freedom of peaceful assembly (article 15)
- No child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his or her honor and reputation (article 16)
- Access to information and material from a diversity of national and international sources (article 17)
What this means at home and in school
Despite these rights, it’s very common for adults to want to control what children see and say online. To some extent this is allowed by the Convention which does call for “the development of appropriate guidelines for the protection of the child from information and material injurious to his or her well-being,” but from my reading of the document, that applies to material such as pornography or, in the case of some children, material that promotes violence or self-harm. It clearly doesn’t apply to mass media or social media, especially when you consider article 13’s specific reference to “through any other media of the child’s choice.” Yet, there are many schools in America, as well as in the countries that have ratified the Convention, that ban the use of social media on school grounds.
Right of privacy
The Convention also gives children the right of privacy and while it’s not entirely clear how this applies to parental or school supervision, it is certainly arguable that neither parents nor school authorities have the right to monitor children’s speech without due cause. I’m not saying that parents should never be allowed to look at their children’s text messages or web history, but I am suggesting that any such monitoring be done only if deemed necessary to protect the child and only with the child’s knowledge and (ideally) consent.
Honor and reputation
It’s not entirely clear to me what the United Nations meant by honor and reputation, but it’s pretty easy to understand how those terms apply in today’s world. Whether it’s protection from peer harassment or bullying by teachers or other authorities, young people have the right to be treated with dignity.
Trust and common sense
At the end of the day, it’s about trust and common sense. To begin with, it’s important to remember that even though the word “child” (and the terms of the Convention) refers to people between the ages of birth and 18, any policies regarding children’s access to material (including even so-called “harmful” material) need to consider their age and maturity. What’s appropriate for a 4-year-old isn’t usually appropriate for a 14-year-old. It’s also important to trust our children unless they give us good reason not to. Most kids are good citizens, most kids don’t bully or harass others and most kids are responsible in their use of media. Of course there are exceptions but that’s true with many adults as well and, at least in theory, our legal system protects the rights and freedom of all adults unless they have been convicted of a crime (and even there they have many rights).
(1) Wikipedia has a good discussion on the history of the debate arguments for and against U.S. ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child
(2) Campaign for U.S. Ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child
(3) UN bringing child rights into the digital age
(4) Protecting children online needs to allow for their right to free speech
(5) Of young people’s (not just digital) citizenship (by Anne Collier, ConnectSafely)