Child Rights by Design

Guidance for innovators of digital products and services used by children

Who is this for?

Who is this guidance for?

Child Rights by Design is for innovators of digital products and services likely to be used by or impact on children. So, what does ‘good’ look like for children in a digital world? Informed by the insights and authority of the UNCRC, we offer guidance for anyone deciding on priorities, policies, values and standards, and those building the systems, artefacts, processes and products.

  • By innovators, we include designers, developers, product managers, executives, marketers, UX (user experience) researchers and professionals in the legal, policy or planning departments of start-ups, mid-sized companies and major corporates, as well as those working on standards, compliance and procurement in the public, private or third sector. A ‘by design’ approach must engage the whole organisation, from the CEO onwards, although we especially have designers in mind.
  • We include digital products and services intended for children and the many products and services that children use – perhaps unnoticed – as part of a broader market. We also include products and services that children don’t use directly but that impact them (cameras in public places, school information management systems, health databases or parental control tools). This includes a host of products and services across the value chain.

To make this guidance clear and practical, we consulted innovators, practitioners, experts and children. Designers in particular asked us:
how can they meet the needs of children of different ages; balance protection and participation; involve children in design; and know whether they have got it right? We answer many such questions here.

“When we design for preschool toys, we’ve got a lot of guidance… I’ve been designing all my life, but when it comes to the digital, I would say I would not know where to look… I would not know the limits of designing for a kid.”

Independent digital designer

To be relevant to the vast diversity of digital products and services that impact on children, we focus on high-level principles that embed child rights, married to provocative questions that can shape design thinking. To create a single resource in a crowded field, we learned from related initiatives, providing pointers to the many valuable resources we have come across. To ensure the guidance meets innovators’ needs, we consider each of the 11 Child Rights by Design principles in turn. Finally, to ensure that digital innovations benefit children, now and in the future, we call on designers to engage with our recommendations.

A note on context. The Digital Futures Commission has conducted this research mainly in the UK, where we consulted children, interviewed innovators and mapped relevant legislation. However, while context matters, our guidance is not restricted to the UK. The challenge we address is global, as is the UNCRC and the scope of many companies that impact children’s digital lives. Our work has benefited from good practice emerging internationally, and we hope it will inspire others.

Why is this guidance needed?

The idea of ‘by design’ harnesses the generative power of providers, designers and policymakers to shape technological innovation in ways that prioritise values that promote human wellbeing – privacy, safety, ethics, equality, inclusion and, encompassing all these, human rights including children’s rights.

The digital environment has not been designed with children in mind. Nor does it always respect and support their needs. This results in multiple problems, often unanticipated and unintended. While media headlines call out the most egregious risks of harm to children’s safety, privacy, agency and wellbeing, less attention is paid to the missed opportunities to benefit children when digital providers neglect their child users. Research reveals how digital technologies pose risks and opportunities for children. Still, its insights may fail to reach those who can build on them in practice.

Encouragingly, there is growing attention to children’s rights within policy, business and design communities, and a diversity of initiatives nationally and internationally seeking to embed human rights, ethics and design justice in technology policy and practice. These changes are spurred on by new regulations, civil society demands and public concerns, including from children, about children’s digital lives. Change also comes from innovators who want to ‘do the right thing’, and good practice examples are accumulating. Policymakers can support businesses by facilitating and incentivising child rights-respecting innovation.

Although many promising steps are being taken by those developing digital products intended for children, there is less attention from those who develop the many other products children use or are impacted by. And for the most part, the focus is on the ‘hygiene’ factors of safety and security, sometimes privacy, neglecting children’s positive rights or the crucial balance needed between different risks, opportunities and rights.

Our #DigitalFutures research surfaced some confusion about which regulations apply to which products, how to embed abstract human
rights in concrete development processes, and how to manage competing priorities – especially when commercial drivers threaten to overrule children’s best interests.

We know that, as much as we are intending to do good, there are always unintended consequences… In terms of bias within the [machine learning] systems, we did workshops around trying to apply that … [and] we found that we did have some bias… So we went back and build an anti-bias system that was bespoke.

Large media organisation

We acknowledge that designing for child rights isn’t easy. But retrofitting design to respect rights after a product is developed can be difficult, and expensive. And there are growing calls from within and outside business to rethink decisions that shape user outcomes in ways that embed values and may positively impact their rights. These suggest that a wholesale shift in culture across the supply chain (investors, advertisers, boards, etc.) is underway, as it should be.

Bridging high-level principles and practical challenges, we set out what innovators need to know for their digital products or services to realise Child Rights by Design. By implementing this guidance, children’s engagement with the digital world will be immeasurably improved.

I’m trying to think of ways where
we can bring in this Privacy by Design
to really make people feel secure… I
see everything that you’ve mentioned
as far as different product features,
safety features, as something that
would be very crucial and core to
my product market development,
that would have to happen before we

Social media start-up

What the guidance offers

All businesses that affect children’s rights in relation to
the digital environment [should] implement regulatory
frameworks, industry codes and terms of services that
adhere to the highest standards of ethics, privacy and
safety in relation to the design, engineering, development,
operation, distribution and marketing of their products
and services … and take measures to innovate in the best
interests of the child.

How can innovators put this into practice? The 11 Child Rights by Design principles were derived from the UNCRC, elaborated with insights from General Comment No 25 on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment, and explored with children, innovators – especially designers – and child rights experts.

The guidance is grounded in the everyday realities of designers and developers, whether or not their digital products are intended for children, as well as the lived experiences of children and families. For each principle, we provide:

  • An account of how specific child rights apply to digital products and services
  • Distilled insights from expert sources and links to relevant legislation
  • Reflections on the principle from children and young people
  • ‘Stop and think’ questions to ask yourself throughout your design process
  • Suggested sources of design inspiration and tools.

How might this help? Suppose you are developing a game to teach children STEM topics that operates on tablets for children aged 10 or older. You offer five games with the initial purchase and options to expand at extra cost. Making your product age appropriate might be a priority to appeal to your intended users. You may expect the product to support children’s development. But the game mechanics and data collected during the game may raise issues of equity and diversity, even safety and agency. Neglecting these principles could result in legal, commercial and ethical problems.

So, read the relevant sections of this guidance. Then, review the checklist at the end to determine your next steps. Instead of a tickbox exercise, think of this as an exciting road map. We don’t promise all the answers, but we are confident of the direction of travel.