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Wanted: Kids willing to discuss their digital lives

Submitted on Monday, July 08, 2019

Faculty of Information professors Sara Grimes and Leslie Shade are searching for kids to talk to them about how they use digital technology in their daily lives, and the opportunities and challenges that technology brings. The information collected will be made available to a special United Nations Committee looking to update the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child for a digital world.

While the General Comment on Children and the Digital Environment, as it’s officially known, deals with topics as grave as protection from violence and sexual exploitation, the Canadian consultation, directed by Grimes and Shade, is focused on issues of privacy, identity, freedom of expression, and equality. Both professors have research experience and expertise in the area of children’s digital rights and cultural participation. Their respective work in this area includes studies of how young people develop strategies to protect their own privacy online, and explorations of children’s “folk understandings” of the complex legal concepts and relationships they encounter when they make and share digital content.

Later this month, the two professors will hold a series of group workshops where participants ranging in age from 10 to 18 will share their thoughts and engage in a range of fun, interactive activities designed to elicit their views on their rights and digital technology. Activities will include filling out surveys, drawing pictures, and voting in polls.

As an expert in children’s digital media cultures and the Director of the Knowledge Media Design Institute (KMDI) at the Faculty of Information, Grimes says children and their parents are bombarded with contradictory messages about the online world. On the one hand they hear that iPads are crucial tools for children learning to read and that educational apps that can teach kids to code. On the other hand, there are the ubiquitous warnings about how technology is turning kids into sedentary screen addicts ruining their lives and their brains.

Grimes is also concerned with the practice of banning children from online spaces to “protect” them, rather than finding better ways to support their rights and presence in the digital realm. Kids have to be at least 13 (older in some jurisdictions) before they can create a Facebook account or start a YouTube channel, but, says Grimes, “not only do many kids ignore these age restrictions,  their parents will often allow them to do it because they think the bans are silly or unnecessary. They want to encourage their kids to be creative, and socialize, and stay in touch with family, and social media is now a key forum for all these things.”

The sweeping bans often don’t make sense at the local level, she says. “For example, not allowing kids to upload content to YouTube, or turning off the comment function on videos featuring kids results in a big loss in opportunity for kids to engage and to achieve. After all, uploading a copyright-infringing cover of a Ne-Yo song to YouTube is how Justin Bieber became Justin Bieber.”

In many cases, children simply want to interact with family members on social media or tell their own stories instead of having their parents “sharenting,” the latest term for parental over sharing. But when the kids ignore the rules and go online anyway, they have no legal rights, says Grimes. “Their content can be removed, their accounts suspended, their complaints ignored, because they are not officially allowed to be there. So there‘s a growing gap between regulatory policies and user practices, where kids have little recourse while their rights are often disregarded entirely.”

Many of KMDI’s current and upcoming research initiatives are focused on supporting children’s rights as participants and cultural producers in digital contexts. In the KMDI’s submission to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which came into force in 1990 before the internet era,  Grimes wrote, “Our goal is to produce empirically and theoretically grounded best practice guidelines and policy recommendations that support a child-centric, inclusive, ethics-based climate for children’s digital media making moving forward.”

KMDI’s work expands on the Kids DIY Media Partnership, a recently completed multi-year, Canada-U.S., cross-sector research collaboration on the same topic for which Grimes was the Principal Investigator. Kids DIY brought together academics, child advocacy groups, platform developers, media companies and public broadcasters to discuss key issues relating to children’s digital media making, and collaborate on a series of related research projects.

Among its many recommendations were that Terms of Service contracts and privacy policies on children’s platforms must not be imbalanced in favour of business interests nor infringe upon or omit children’s rights, that children have the same copyrights over their creations as adults, that concerns about safety and risk must be balanced with proper consideration of children’s rights and autonomy, and that age restrictions should only be applied if there is a real justification for excluding children.

While Grimes acknowledges that there are indeed dangers online that understandably provoke emotional reactions, she says the “fears are greatly exaggerated and the risks for encountering the types of dangers sensationalized by certain news media are quite small.”

She believes that necessary restrictions need to be balanced with children’s rights to freedom of expression and that too much of the labour of keeping kids safe online is being “put on the backs of kids, parents and teachers” instead of on media and internet companies, which could invest more, for example, on moderation and tracking down people engaging in abusive behaviour. She describes current practices as a form of “labour exploitation” of platform and app users, who are asked to invest increasing amounts of time to trying to figure out and navigate the blackboxed business processes that gird children’s lives in the digital realm.

The workshops that Grimes and Shade will conduct are being held in 24 countries in partnership with the RErights project, a collaboration between 5rights, Western Sydney University and the London School of Economics and Political Science. Grimes says RErights was instrumental in convincing the UN that this General Comment was necessary, and that its workshops are well designed and thought out. She will focus on facilitating the participation of the study’s younger study participants while Shade, who has expertise in working with older teens, will focus on that cohort.

The participants will be asked to fill out a series of worksheets, providing written answers and ideas that will be sent back to the RErights project team, where they will be analyzed and compared with results gathered from the other workshops being conducted worldwide. The findings of this cross-cultural analysis will be compiled into a report which will in turn be used by the UN committee to write the General Comment later this year.

The workshops are being held on July 16 (10am-2pm) and July 17 (1pm-5pm) at the Faculty of Information, University of Toronto. A third workshop will be held on July 29th if demand is sufficient. Each workshop will last between 3-4 hours, with breaks and light refreshments. For their participation, kids will each receive return fare for TTC/public transportation and a $25 gift card. For more information about the workshops or to express your (or your child’s) interest in participating, please contact Professor Sara Grimes at sara.grimes@utoronto.ca, leave a message at 416-978-5269, or visit the project Facebook page: Children and the Digital Environment: Toronto Workshops.

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