Empowering Children’s Voices with Amanda Third

Jordan Shapiro

--

In this episode, Laura and I are joined by Amanda Third, Associate Professor at the University of Western Sydney and co-author of the UN’s Digital Rights of the Child. Amanda shares her participatory research approach that empowers children as active contributors to data on their digital experiences. As part of the Global Kids Online initiative, she highlights the digital challenges kids face and calls for adult support and effective policies. Tune in to understand how we can create a future where children can imaginatively harness digital technology.

Amanda Third: Hi. My name’s Amanda. I’m a professor at Western Sydney University, where I co-direct the Young and Resilient Research Centre.

Laura: So we’ve known each other for quite a long time, I think, at least eight years now, and in that time we’ve worked on some really massive projects. Just to name a few: The UN Digital Rights of the Child which we’re definitely going to dig into and the Global Kids Online Research Project. They’ve had such a massive impact on the well being and safety of kids and teens and adolescents online, we’re going to focus on those as some of our discussion. Let’s start with a really big one.

So the United Nations’ Digital Rights of the Child? That’s a really huge thing. Can you tell us a little bit of the background, and where your work kind of cut into that. What was the goal?

Amanda: Yeah, so that was probably a real career highlight for me. This was a big project to really try to ensure that the rights of children could be realized in online spaces as they are in offline spaces. So it was about taking the Convention on the Rights of the Child and really reinterpreting that, you know, updating the convention for the 21st century, thinking about what we needed to do whether that was as governments or as a private enterprise or of civil society, to really ensure that children could not just be safe online, but really maximize the benefits of digital technology for realizing their rights. So it was a really long process. It took us about five years from proposing that there should be one of these general comments to the moment where we finalized it, and it was adopted formally by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. It was a really great process and the result is that we now have a general comment on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment, which guides states to tell them how to apply the convention to ensure that children are safe in the digital age.

Jordan: Tell us some of the specific things in it, some things that might surprise our listeners.

Amanda: Well, it’s 10,700 words. Precisely. It’s a nice, concise text for a sort of a legal instrument, right? And it talks about all the kinds of different rights that children have and then how to ensure that those rights can be respected, protected, and fulfilled. So children, under the convention and the rights of the child have, roughly speaking, three kinds of rights. The first category is around provision, which is all about the basic fundamental things we need to make sure are in place so that a child can survive and develop and grow. They also have protection rights which are about protecting them from all different kinds of harm. And they have participation rights. And it’s the participation rights that get me most excited. The participation rights that are stipulated in the convention give children fundamental rights to participate in civic and political life. You know it grants them rights that are equivalent to those of full citizens, right? Those adults who are defined by law as the people who constitute the citizenry and they stipulate that actually to really fulfill children’s broader rights. You have to be speaking with, listening to, and responding to children’s own sense of what they need, what they desire, and what they aspire to.

Jordan: I love that because one of the things that really fascinates me about your work is the participatory approach to research, which obviously is connected to everything you’re saying. Well, maybe it’s not obvious to everyone who’s listening, so maybe you could tell us a bit about first, what participatory research is, how it shows up for you, and how that connects to digital wellness, or digital rights.

Amanda: Thanks for that. But before we do that, Jordan, can I just pick you up on one little thing which I think is kind of important? It’s this question of digital rights. I think we need to be really careful when we talk about children. You know what the general comment secures for children, because whilst a really important part of the general comment is securing rights for children in digital spaces, right? So thinking about what it means to be safe online, but also what it means to really participate fully in the digital environment in those online spaces. I want us to really push ourselves to think about the value of this general comment more broadly because, actually what the general comment is trying to set up is a way for us to think about how the digital might support children to realize their rights across online and offline spaces, to really open up a sort of a radical vision of what technology might offer for children, and that to me is really exciting. And it’s not a question that we often think enough about, but back to your other question, which was sorry, is that okay, that I just went rogue there?

But what is participatory research? And what’s the value of it? So participatory research with children is about taking seriously the idea that children should be agents in conducting research, generating insights, interpreting those insights, and then wielding them. So the idea is that it’s about thinking beyond doing research, about our children. And really, how you do research with children, thinking about them as partners in the research process. And this is, you know, it sounds lovely in principle, but it’s actually quite a difficult thing to achieve in practice, because, of course the minute that you begin to do anything with children as an adult, you’re activating a whole set of power dynamics that get in the way of all kinds of good things. So it’s a constant challenge inside the participatory research process to really stay attuned to those power dynamics and think creatively about how to work with them, subvert them, and really, really open up spaces, I guess, for children to participate meaningfully.

Jordan: Yeah, what is it? What does that mean? If we were to get really specific about it? What does that bring the other, the seeing research on children rather than with children. Right? Like, what do we get that’s different? Do we get more accuracy? Where do we get accuracy? Where do we get more accuracy? Where do we have less accuracy? When do you know all those? All the questions?

Amanda: Yeah, so well, good. Thanks, Jordan, you need to just pull me down to get me to stop talking abstractly and more concretely. yeah. So what does it give us? I think what participatory research really gives us is a way to make sure that the solutions that we design for children really resonate with children, and a position for the best possible uptake and impact. I think, working really closely with children, can supercharge what we’re able to achieve in terms of not just protecting them, but actually leveling them up and enabling them to really maximize the value of being online and using digital technologies.

I think, too — this is something I think we really underestimate. It makes research really fun. And… we really underestimate it. Because when you’re having fun, you’re in a much more creative space, you’re much more able to think about things from different angles and generate new ideas, and you know it’s just way better to put it in. You know the words that a teenager recently used with me. It’s way more vibey, right? It’s kind of like you can just do more stuff. So I think, you know, I think all of us adults who are involved in designing the digital world, for children really need to make time to, you know. Take our shoes off and stand in the grass and remember what it’s like to be a child, you know. Come down to street level in order to level up right? I think I think in a nutshell, that’s what I would say it offers us.

Laura: I love that, Amanda. You know we’ve recently been working on a project together on a different theme, and one of the key findings that came out of it was about the thing that we’re all missing, whether we’re a good platform who work with young people all the time, or academics or other people in this space, NGO’s in the space, is youth participation, but also youth-led product. Design is so vital, and we all talk about it, and we all want it. We’re willing to do it, but actually making it happen feels scary. But I feel hopeful we’re going to start seeing some stuff in that space. I also just wanted to pick up on what you were talking about young people being given that platform, that opportunity to go and do the things that they want to do online. You know, we just see this political activism from young people which is absolutely incredible. And it’s the first time I would say, particularly in the online space where we’ve seen this real movement happening. And it feels a little bit like the hippie revolution, which I’m quite a fan of. But yeah, Godspeed kids. I think you’re going to be fine and hopefully, we will all enable you on that journey.

I would like to move on just very briefly to talk about the Global Kids Online project. So in our previous series one of your good friends, Dr. Sonia Livingstone, came and joined us. And we talked about EU kids online and her participation in that and a little bit about global kids. Amanda, obviously, you’re based in Australia. I think we’ve briefly touched on that. But what was your experience like again working with the youth participants and any findings, takeaways, and stuff that you would like to share with us?

Amanda: Yes, I’ve been really, really lucky to have a role in Global Kids Online as an expert adviser. And really, I guess I’ve come into that entity as someone who brings some child participation expertise. And having talked to a lot of children over 15 plus years doing this work. You know I have learned a lot, and so that’s kind of how I came into that entity. And I think what’s really lovely about the Global Kids Online initiative is that it’s trying to generate evidence in places where we don’t have the evidence to drive policy and programming. This is a really big challenge for the sector around the world, you know, especially when we reflect on the fact that one in three users of the internet is a child, you know, that’s a huge number of users. A lot of those children are coming online as mobile-first users, so that you know that they don’t connect via a desktop, or they connect via a mobile phone. And that comes with, you know, different kinds of constraints and capabilities. But also many children are coming online in communities where digital technology is a really new thing, and they don’t always have the cultures of support around them, because the adults in their lives are really rapidly getting up to speed, too. I mean, I think, about, you know, Australia is supposed to be a reasonably you know, advanced technological, adopting country, right? I’m sure there’s a technical term for that. It’s not that, you know, like we’re thought of as early adopters. And I even think about my own experiences as a parent trying to keep up to speed and be a good parent to a child who is growing up in the digital age, and I find it really challenging. So I think those kinds of challenges are accentuated in many parts of the world. We really do need a bunch of evidence to help drive that.

I think also, what is lovely about the Global Kids Online initiative is that it is trying to generate quantitative evidence, but also qualitative evidence. And I think this is really super important, because you know…numbers don’t tell us everything, and it’s really important to to drill down into children’s experiences and really understand why they make the choices that they make, why they do things. You know what they’re able to do online and what they’re not able to do online, you know, to really understand the why behind the numbers

Jordan: So what do you understand so far?

Amanda: Oh, Jordan, you like to ask a big question, don’t you? Well, look, we’ve developed a bunch of methods that enable us to, I guess talk with children in a deep way at scale. We call this distributed data generation. And this is about developing a workshop. Typically, the workshops are like 5 hours long, and we then work with child-facing organizations in different countries to run workshops with children, gather their insights, and then we have a process where we analyze that data in conjunction with those child-facing organizations. And through this process, we’ve learned a lot. If I think about the things that children say are the biggest challenges to them, number one are the access issues. We know that there are still really obstinate digital inclusion challenges that are impacting the ways that children engage online. These range from, you know, disrupted internet connectivity. You know old devices or hand-me-down devices with batteries that don’t work, you know, all those sort of typical hardware issues. But also things like the parents making rules that you know, restrict their access and really limit children’s capacity to engage meaningfully, the attitudes of the adults in their lives. You know one thing that they highlight often is that teachers don’t really know enough about the digital world and how to bring it to life at school and value it and all of these sorts of things. They also say that, you know, adults, (you know, love kids. They really. They’re so wonderful when they get going) But they say things like, you know, “Adults say, on the one hand, ‘Put your devices away. Do this, do that’, and then, on the other hand, they just flagrantly break their own rules, and they’re not role-modeling in the ways that we would like them to.” So they’ve got a lot of what we might think of as quite valid critiques of the ways that their digital technology is spoken about.

But they also, and this is the thing that I really love the most is they, have this incredible enthusiasm and optimism for the ways that digital technology can benefit them. They really do see digital technology as an enabler for them for the most part and they’ve got these really wonderful visions of how technology can help to unite the world, how it can make it a more just. And you know, good place to be, but they’re also calling on governments, on companies, your platforms on, you know, the adults in their lives in general to really make sure that these spaces can be those enablers, and that the risks of harm are really minimized. The, you know, discrimination, hate speech, misinformation, privacy, breaches, these are the things that really bother children, and they’re really looking for us to step up and find some solutions.

Laura: Amazing piece of work. I’m sure that everyone involved in it is incredibly proud. Certainly, every time the reports come out you know I dig in, and I’m always really fascinated with how things have kind of changed over a period of time, and certainly, globally, it feels as much as I think lots of people are suffering a little bit with that lack of access that you mentioned, but actually, it’s probably leveled out on a global level, whereas the countries that saw themselves as way beyond in the past, maybe I’ve now dropped down a little bit. So that’s quite interesting.

Amanda: And I think, Laura, that’s really true. Often it’s really easy for us to talk about young people in the global North as the most connected generation, etc. And we often forget actually, this incredible diversity in the ways that children engage with technology. Some have much more access than others, and really some of the divisions within countries are quite stark. And so digital inclusion is still a massive challenge for us, not just in low-income settings, but in high-income settings as well.

Laura: Thank you. So, Amanda. yeah, I mean amazing work that you’ve done already, and I’m so happy that I’ve worked with you on some of these projects.

Jordan: I wonder, with that in mind like, do you think there’s things that we (I don’t know who “the we” is) whether “the we” is researchers, tech industry, academics, policy. Maybe like, are there things we’re not focusing on that we really should be focusing on?

Amanda: My biggest gripe is that we’re not imaginative enough about the way that we think about children’s relationship to technology. It’s very true that there are lots of risks of harm associated with children engaging online. But we have got to, first of all, find ways to protect children online, and also, but at the same time think in a kind of maximal way about what the possibilities really are. We want to be teaching children to grab a hold of this technology and think with it, work with it. To do, you know things that we haven’t thought of yet? I think it’s really easy for us to get stuck in our thinking about what those possibilities are. And I think we need to enable children a chance to think differently. So yeah, to my mind, we really need to open up those spaces.

Laura: I love that so much, Amanda. I can’t wait to see what that future might look like. And hopefully it’s something we can all get behind.

--

--

Jordan Shapiro

Author of Father Figure: How to Be a Feminist Dad (www.FeministDadBook.com) Twitter: @jordosh