Q&A with Katarina Mellström, Secretary General

Tech & Telecom must do more to protect children’s rights

February 2024

Navigating children’s rights at the nexus of technological advances

On February 27th, Katarina Mellström, Secretary General of Global Child Forum, will take the stage at GSMA Mobile World Congress (MWC) – the world’s largest and most influential connectivity event. She will unveil key findings from our latest Children’s Rights and Business Benchmark, and urge industry representatives to not only seize opportunities but also increase their support for children’s rights in the evolving digital landscape. In the lead up to the keynote session, we asked Katarina a series of questions about the pivotal issues influencing the digital world for our youngest global citizens.

In what ways have the past few years influenced the dynamics between technology and the rights of children?

In the evolving technological landscape, children’s rights are influenced by a mix of challenges and possibilities. Privacy concerns, cyberbullying, grooming, sexual exploitation, and a host of other risks emphasise the need for a child rights perspective. Failure to incorporate such a perspective jeopardises children’s safety and hinders their healthy development. However, amidst these challenges, technology offers educational and creative opportunities. To navigate this landscape, adults must understand children’s digital lives, leveraging the positive aspects while actively mitigating risks. Balancing the perils and potentials is crucial for prioritising and protecting the rights of the younger generation in the digital age.

What are some of the opportunities that technology and advances in AI offer young people?

There are numerous opportunities that foster a positive impact on their lives. For example, technology offers enhanced access to education and information, and facilitates global connectivity through social platforms, providing youth opportunities to explore and shape personal identity.

Beyond identity exploration, technology equips young people with the ability to develop essential skills. Educational apps, interactive platforms, and AI-driven learning tools create engaging environments that enhance critical thinking, problem-solving, and digital literacy skills. This not only prepares them for the future workforce but also nurtures a mindset of continuous learning.

The positive impact of technology opens doors to educational enrichment, global connectivity, self-discovery, and skill development, ultimately empowering the younger generation to thrive in an ever-evolving digital landscape.

Thinking back to my younger years, I wonder how I would’ve engaged with technology and what worlds I could’ve explored!

What concerning realities lurk behind the technological advancements?

Well, as with many technological advances, behind the facade there exists a stark reality and, in this case, that reality poses severe threats to children’s rights. Privacy-related issues, such as data misuse and exposure, amplify the vulnerability of children online. The rise of cyberbullying, fuelled by hate speech, jeopardises their mental well-being and safety. Online platforms risk becoming breeding grounds for exploitation, online grooming, and exposure to inappropriate content, intensifying risks to their emotional and physical safety. Moreover, the infiltration of AI introduces concerns of bias and discrimination, impacting their online experiences.

As technology intertwines with children’s lives, there’s a growing worry about its negative effects on critical thinking skills and social skill development. We’ve got to tackle these challenges head-on. It’s about ensuring ethics take the front seat when bringing AI into the mix. That way, we can create a digital space where youth can thrive safely.

Are there notable advancements and initiatives in addressing these challenges?

 We’re seeing progress in tackling the challenges. On the legislative front, we see several countries stepping up, introducing or updating laws to boost online safety and privacy for children. The global pace of legislative progress, though, is uneven – some places are moving faster than others.

Corporate action is a big player in this game. Many companies are rolling up their sleeves, whether solo or teaming up, to implement better online child protection measures. Social media platforms are tightening their content moderation, and tech companies are embracing age-appropriate design principles. There is a growing awareness that responsible business practices are necessary in this digital age.

In the telecommunications sector, GSMA has been at the forefront of initiatives addressing child rights and online safety. Their work includes initiatives to combat sexual exploitation online, and the development of child rights impact assessments for telecommunications companies. This demonstrates a commitment to creating a safer digital environment for children.

But, of course, there’s a “but.” Despite all these efforts, we’re not quite there yet. Challenges still linger – there are gaps in regulations, corporate practices are all over the place, and online threats to children keep evolving.

 However, the scale and complexity of the issue require sustained efforts from all stakeholders – governments, corporations, and civil society. Continued collaboration, transparency, and a shared commitment to prioritising children’s rights are essential to making meaningful progress in ensuring a secure and positive digital experience for the younger generation.

What is Global Child Forum’s role in addressing the impact of technology on children’s rights?

Global Child Forum operates at the intersection of children’s rights and business, and in addition to our tools and services, we conduct the world’s largest benchmark on how companies report on their actions and policies to protect children. We have benchmarked the largest Tech and Telecom companies, and are able to draw insights from the data that can help inform the sector to foster responsible business practices, encourage innovation, and signpost compliance.

What findings have emerged from Global Child Forum’s Tech and Telecom benchmark?

It’s a mixed picture. Overall, the sector – made up of both Technology and Telecommunications companies – has improved since our last benchmark in 2021. As of 2023, the Telecommunications industry scores 5.8 out of 10 (trailing Electronics B2B and B2C). However, some of the strongest companies in this sector are in Telecommunications, including Vodafone, Zain, BT, Singtel, Swisscom, and Telenor.

This positive showing for the Telecommunications industry may result from tightening legislation, and initiatives from organisations like the GSMA play a role in shaping these standards.

However, the IT Software and Services industry, led by major players like Alphabet, Meta, Amazon, Alibaba, and Netflix, is lagging – and this is particularly worrying as these companies significantly influence the lives of children through social media, e-commerce, streaming services, and gaming platforms. But despite their pivotal role in shaping the digital landscape, these companies are falling behind in analysing and reporting their commitments to children’s rights.

We see that compliance reporting falls short, and children are often overlooked as stakeholders in marketing, products, and services.

Overall, we need digital service providers to be held accountable for the well-being of children, urging the development of consistent and enforceable metrics to ensure their protection is not compromised for corporate interests.

Tech & Telecom must do more to protect children’s rights

“A substantial portion of children worldwide lack access to these digital opportunities. This digital divide underscores an urgent need to ensure safe and inclusive access for all children.”

Katarina Mellström
Secretary General, Global Child Forum

How does Global Child Forum view children’s rights in the digital era?

 We recognise that the current state of children’s rights in the digital era is marked by a global divide. For those children with online access, who are ’digital natives’, there is a need for a paradigm shift. It’s crucial for adults to engage with them actively, moving beyond talking to or acting for them. Keeping children safe online while acknowledging their digital fluency and involving them in decisions that affect their online experiences, is integral to creating a safer and more empowering digital environment.

On the flip side, a substantial portion of children worldwide lacks access to these digital opportunities. This digital divide underscores an urgent need to ensure safe and inclusive access for all children. Bridging this gap is not only a matter of equal opportunity but also a fundamental step toward safeguarding the rights of every child in the digital age. Global Child Forum emphasises the importance of addressing this disparity to create a more equitable and secure digital landscape for children globally.

What urgent actions are needed to combat digital harms and protect children online?

Action is imperative, requiring increased global investment, future-proof legislation, and advancements in safety technology.

But above all, businesses must prioritise the safety and well-being of children in all digital interactions. By integrating child protection measures into your digital platforms and services, you demonstrate a commitment to creating a safer online environment for our youngest users. We also need to harness the power of innovation to make the digital world a safer place for children. Invest in developing new technologies and tools that protect children from cyberbullying, exploitation, and exposure to harmful content.  And I must also mention that together, we can have a greater impact. Join forces with governments, NGOs, youth and other stakeholders – such as GSMA –  in a united effort to safeguard children online.

Through collaboration, we can share knowledge, develop best practices, and create comprehensive strategies to address the digital challenges facing children today.

Media enquiries

Contact us

Linda Ravin Lodding
Head of Communications
Global Child Forum
mobile: +46 72 387 0248

Safeguarding children in the digital landscape


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