With its recently launched Comment 17, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child intends to invigorate what is often called the ‘forgotten article’ of the UN Child Rights Convention (CRC), i.e. article 31 on the right to play. An important milestone because play is not well understood, its importance underestimated and the right to play – therefore – poorly recognised. The holistic approach taken by the CRC means that play is instrumental to other rights, such as the rights to privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of association, and vice versa. Hence, even though play is explicitly addressed by only one article, it resonates in others as well and is more important than may be assumed at first glance.
Why is play important for children? Play is not a pointless activity, but contributes to a learning curve in which children are prepared for their grown-up lives through trial-and-error, imagination and make-believe. Play allows children to practice real-life situations, to try to make sense of the world and to develop their own views and opinions. Play also liberates children from an adult world that holds many restrictions for them.
However, time and space to engage in play is becoming scarcer. Children are more and more pressured into activities that are organised and supervised by adults. Public spaces that traditionally allowed them the freedom to play and socialise with peers, such as (fun and exciting) playgrounds, have disappeared or become no-go zones because kids hanging around are perceived as freaky nuisances. The back-seat generation is driven by parents from home to school and wherever else they need to be. Intentionally kept away from these public spaces, not only because they are not welcome there, but also because these spaces are perceived as (potentially) dangerous areas.
Many new opportunities for play have emerged with digital technologies, such as casual games, virtual worlds, video sites, and social networks. Today, online and offline constitute one seamlessly interconnected social reality in young people’s lives. Always on and always connected, at least, if we let them. A recent survey we carried out in the European project Dynamic Identity showed that children think positively about the internet, because besides an abundance of information, it provides them with social contacts, fun and entertainment. Despite worries about too much screen time and a lack of outdoor exercise, it is clear that digital play is now an important, inevitable, part of children’s leisure and playtime too. Research demonstrates the great impact of social media on teens’ social lives, and we can safely assume that ever younger children increasingly look for fun and entertainment in digital environments. Virtual spaces may even replace physical spaces, when children are seeking unmonitored public areas for hanging out and fooling around.
Comment 17 recognises these changes in children’s lives which have come about since the adoption of the CRC in 1989. Digital environments offer “huge benefits – educationally, socially and culturally”, the Comment affirms, and “access to the Internet and social media is central to the realisation of article 31 rights in the globalised environment”. Unfortunately, it then goes on to focus more particularly on the risks of the internet by painting a rather bleak picture that is not corroborated by research in the way it’s presented here. Given that the child’s right to play is jeopardised by a culture of fear that greatly impacts children’s rights and freedoms more generally, we must meticulously frame online risks and harms in a way that is actually true to reality and take productive steps to help children deal with them.
On a final note, while reconceptualising the right to play (and privacy) in light of the digital environment, we need to also start a pressing debate on increasingly sophisticated online marketing strategies focused on children, as well as online profiling of children by game providers, social media, marketing companies and many others. We would never allow businesses to endlessly creep up on our children in playgrounds, school yards, on soccer fields, et cetera, and covertly coerce them into desiring their products. So why should this be any different when they play online?