Designing for children’s best interests means giving at least equal consideration to children’s wellbeing, growth, development and agency as to businesses’ interests. This principle requires a balancing act across the full spectrum of children’s rights as well as the rights of others, also taking into consideration the contexts of use.
The ultimate purpose of the child’s best interests should be to ensure the full and effective enjoyment of the rights recognised in the Convention and the holistic development of the child. Consequently, elements that are contrary to the rights enshrined in the Convention or that would have an effect contrary to the rights under the Convention cannot be considered as valid in assessing what is best for a child or children.
Crucially, business or design decisions will not be in the best interests of children if the outcomes of such decisions conflict with children’s rights, viewed holistically. Nor can decisions be reached without consulting children and considering their opinions.
Despite the technical capability of modern technologies to identify and grasp users’ behaviours and requirements, digital providers often claim that they cannot identify the age of their users or distinguish children from adults. As a result, digital products and services are often built in ways that neglect children’s diverse needs and vulnerabilities.
Making children’s best interests ‘a primary consideration’ in the ‘provision, regulation, design, management and use of the digital environment’ does not mean innovators cannot profit from their investments. It means making children visible in the decision making in your innovation processes by assessing the impact of decisions on a child or children likely to access your product or service, whether they are the intended users or not.
In the search for suitable compromise, authorities and decision makers must weigh the rights of all those concerned, bearing in mind that the best interests of the child have high priority and are not just one of several considerations.
In the digital context, considerations of children’s best interests extend to the processing and usage of data obtained from them as they engage in the digital activities inherent in the design of digital products and services.
Relevant legal frameworks and guidance
Data protection law recognises the special protection that children merit, given their evolving capacities and vulnerabilities: Children require specific protection with regard to their personal data as they may be less aware of the risks, consequences and safeguards concerned and their rights in relation to the processing of personal data.
The UK Age Appropriate Design Code (AADC) translates this legal requirement into 15 standards for digital design, the first of which prescribes the ‘best interests of the child’ as ‘a primary consideration when [designing and developing] online services likely accessed by a child.’
Children’s best interests are cited as foundational in the Australian Online Safety Act 2021 and the Australian Safety by Design principles (Principle 8: ‘The best interests of the user [including children] should be at the heart of the app, game or platform’).
The Council of Europe recommends that ‘a balanced assessment of children’s [best] interests’ is ‘at the centre of policymaking and decision-making practices.’ In this assessment, innovators should account for children’s views, identity, preservation of the family environment, safety, situations that exacerbate the child’s vulnerabilities, children’s rights to health and education, and more. Likewise, the Dutch Code for Children’s Rights (Code voor kinderechten) prescribes a ‘Child Impact Assessment’ before developing a digital product or service, and throughout the product and service development and life cycle to help make children’s best interests ‘the primary consideration’.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s General Comment No 14 sets clear steps for governments and businesses to resolve
potential conflicts among rights in children’s best interests. This calls for processes of consultation, evidence gathering, transparency and review.
By incorporating a Child Rights Impact Assessment (CRIA) into the design and development processes, children’s diverse requirements will be better anticipated by innovators. Whether or not children are the intended users of digital products and services, prioritising their best interests should be at the heart of digital innovation and design.
Suggested design tools
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) offers a self-assessment tool to help work out whether data processing as part of product and service operation is in the best interests of the child.
The ICO’s framework highlights key children’s rights relevant to data processing, and explains how these rights relate to different aspects of data processing.