A Vision for the Future: Reflections on children’s rights in the digital age

As a father, my wish is to see my child grow and strive, a wish shared by parents the world over. How can our children grow up happy and safe from harm and disease? Do they need fresh air, clean water, a beautiful environment, a harmonious family, a supportive society or a country that is rich and strong? I believe they need all of those, and more.

My child was born ‘digital’, into a generation whose members have been dubbed ’digital natives’. They are the happiest generation because they have convenient, fast and effective access to information and can enjoy their lives like no other before them.

Meanwhile, we are increasingly aware that not all children are realizing their rights. And we are seeing how the denial of child rights takes on a new meaning in the internet age. Regardless of their region, wealth or status, children have the right to develop; to fully participate in family, cultural and social life; and to have equal access to information, self-expression and education.

However, even with better technologies and improvements in productivity, the gap between those with and without access to computers and the internet is expanding. In December 2016, the number of ‘netizens’ under 19 years of age reached 171 million – in China alone. Yet, many children in China, and around the world, lack access for economic and social reasons. The internet, as a public property, can and should be leveraged to bridge this digital divide.

To connect people in rural parts of China, in 2015 we initiated a mobile internet programme called WeCountry. Two years later, while problems remain to be solved, we are pleasantly surprised to find that the programme has helped teach those new to the internet how to use it and has given many disadvantaged children access to information and learning opportunities.

But, implementing child rights in a digital age is not only about closing the digital gap. As one of China’s largest comprehensive internet service providers, Tencent bears a considerable responsiblity: Millions of children are using our products to communicate, learn and entertain themselves every day. Children and parents need to understand there are risks behind these opportunities. False or malicious information and violent or pornographic material online put children at risk of harm. Data breaches releasing personal or private information, such as children’s photos or identities, can be used to exploit them and lead to serious consequences. Cyber violence and bullying has become a global problem. Finally, internet fraud, organized crime and child trafficking threaten to translate online shadows into offline evils.

As a father, I am deeply worried by the online risks children face daily. As an internet entrepreneur, I am very aware of the responsibilities on my shoulders.

Tencent is accountable for protecting the online safety of every child. To this end, Tencent incorporates online child protection in all aspects of its business practices. For example, in November 2016, the company launched the ‘Tencent for children – Child rights protection in a digital world’ initiative and announced the Child Online Protection Project with UNICEF. The partnership will dive into a wide range of issues including cyber violence, cyberbullying, exposure to inappropriate content and online gaming. The aim is to form a balanced understanding of children’s internet usage for the purposes of policy advocacy, raising public awareness and building an industry coalition. This project will help advance the agenda of online child protection across sectors – government, the information and communication technology (ICT) industry, academia and civil society organizations – and explore the positive impact of the internet on children.

The internet age is characterized by rapid, innovative changes in technology and human-computer interactions and has the potential to broaden children’s experiences and development. It is easy to imagine how image recognition, artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality, gene sequencing and even neural technology will improve children’s lives.

At the same time, new technologies will demand our full attention in terms of potential risks. Take, for example, the debate around potential biases or discrimination by AI algorithms. It is still unclear whether algorithms are introducing gender or racial biases into decision-making.

As a driving force for technological innovation, the ICT industry is duty-bound to place child rights and protection at the heart of technology and product innovation efforts, where they will serve to influence legislation and policymaking, improve public awareness and develop industry standards to safeguard the global Child Online Protection Initiative.

Protecting every child from all forms of online harms is our common aspiration. Each and every child also needs the patience and proper guidance of parents, which allows them to be curious about the world around them – real or virtual – so they can keep exploring and grow up healthy, happy and independent.

An old Chinese saying advises, “Take care of one’s own children first and then extend the same care to the children of others.” Protection of children’s rights should cross the boundaries of industries, organizations and countries. Only cooperation can hold us accountable and allow us to protect children for the benefit of all humankind. Let’s join our hands and forge ahead for the next generation and beyond.

Learn more by visiting www.unicef.org/sowc2017/

About the author
Pony Ma is the co-founder of Tencent, one of the largest internet companies in China, and currently serves as its executive director, chairman of the board and chief executive officer. Pony oversees strategic development, overall direction and management of Tencent. He received his Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from Shenzhen University in 1993.

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