New information and communication technologies have fundamentally altered how children interact with and participate in the world around them. Through the provision of the internet and mobile technology, ICT companies have provided children with opportunities to learn, share and communicate. Similarly, the growth the ICT industry has stimulated new employment opportunities and risks in the development, delivery and disposal of new ICT technologies and services.
In the workplace, children may be employed in the extraction of minerals or metals used in the production of smartphones, televisions and computers. Young workers, parents and caregivers may also experience wage and working time violations when manufacturing electronic products. Reports of working hour violations are prevalent in major ICT manufacturing countries such as China, with working hours regularly exceeding national and international limits. Research has also found higher average working hours among firms with a high percentage of female workers, impacting the caring responsibilities of parents and caregivers.
The ICT industry faces the most pronounced children’s rights risks in the marketplace. Children are active and growing users of the internet and mobile technologies. Research conducted by ITU (International Telecommunication Union), the UN agency for information and communication technologies, found that two-thirds of the world’s nearly three billion internet users live in the Global South, where the proportion of children’s in the population is far higher than in the Global North. ITU further found that young people aged 15 to 24 are between two and three times more likely to be online than older people, this ratio is also higher in developing countries. As such, a growing proportion of internet users will include children.
While there has been much international attention on the ICT sector’s responsibility to respect children’s rights, it has almost been exclusively in the context of sexual abuse, exploitation and harmful content. In addition to putting in systems to address violence, abuse and exploitation online, ICT companies also have a critical role to play in protecting the privacy of young users’ personal data and preserving their right to freedom of expression online.
Community and Environment
In the community and environment, children may be exposed to harmful impacts of electronic waste (e-waste). Research conducted by ITU has found that the scale of electronic waste is growing fast. The organisation estimated that 41.8 metric tons (Mt) of electronic waste was produced globally in 2014. This number is forecast to increase up to 50 Mt by 2018. Toxic chemicals, such as lead, arsenic and cadmium, that are released from electronic waste, can leach into soil overtime and contaminate crops and drinking water. Consumption of these harmful chemicals can be harmful to children.
These workplace, marketplace and community and environment risks highlight the need for the ICT industry to develop due diligence strategies to ensure the rights of children are respected both online and offline. ICT companies face a unique opportunity to work collaboratively with industry and government regulators to establish clear guidelines and standards to ensure the children’s rights are upheld.
The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Companies report titled Practical Actions for Companies to Identify and Address the Worst Forms of Child Labour in Mineral Supply Chains provide guidance for ICT companies looking to tackle their offline risks. UNICEF have also developed Guidelines for Industry on Child Online Protection to assist ICT companies in integrating children’s rights in their online risk management systems. The Guidelines provide a framework for the increasingly broad range of companies that develop, provide or make use of information and communication technologies in the delivery of their products and services, and outline five key actions that companies can take to effectively respect the rights of children in the online environment. To help businesses keep pace with the fast expanding debates around children’s rights online, UNICEF has also developed a series of discussion papers under the series Children’s Rights and Business in the Digital World.