Online safety / July 05, 2022

Q&A with Children First Canada’s Sara Austin: making Canada the best place in the world for kids to grow up

Nimmi Kanji

Nimmi Kanji

Director - Social Purpose Programs, For Good and TELUS Wise

A family of three enjoying a safe, digital experience on their laptop

Sara Austin has dedicated her life to helping Canada become the best place in the world for kids to grow up. As Founder and CEO of Children First Canada, Sara champions and advocates for the rights of children in Canada and on the global stage. Under her leadership, Children First Canada has spearheaded several key initiatives including the Canadian Children’s Charter and the Young Canadians’ Parliament.

We spoke with Sara about the quality of life for kids in Canada right now, and how the Canadian Children’s Charter is putting kids on the front line of leading the meaningful change they want to see in both their physical and digital worlds.

Q: Where are we in this moment in time when it comes to quality of life for kids in Canada?

SA: We know intuitively that this is a tough time for kids. But the data is proving that to be true. According to Unicef’s Innocenti Report Card 16, Canada is 30th out of 38 wealthy nations for quality of life for kids. We’re fighting against this persistent myth that Canada is one of the best places in the world to raise a child. While Canada was ranked 10th on that list a decade ago, we’ve unfortunately seen a sharp downward trajectory since then. Many people think the pandemic is to blame for our current child health crisis. However, our most recent ranking is from 2020 pre-pandemic. The pandemic only accelerated and exacerbated some of the key factors determining quality of life including child poverty, abuse, bullying and suicide.

Q: What is the Canadian Children’s Charter and why was it created?

SA: In 2015, I founded Children First Canada with the vision of making Canada the best place in the world for kids to grow up. To help drive our mission forward, I knew it was critical for kids to play a leading role in our organization. The Canadian Children’s Charter was created by kids for kids as a call to action to respect, protect and fulfill the rights of children. To create the Charter, we launched a national digital campaign in 2017, consulting Canadians below the age of 18, from coast to coast, on their experiences, challenges and ideas for taking action. We worked alongside government officials and leaders from corporations and civil society. The project culminated in 2018 on National Child Day in an event we did on Parliament Hill.

The Canadian Children's Charter created by kids as a call to action to respect, protect and fulfill the rights of children Image Credit: Children’s First Canada

Q: How far do you think Canada has come since 2018?

SA: There have been some areas of progress, but some substantial backtracking as well in the areas of education and mental/physical health. One of the best things to happen, however, is the role kids are playing as leaders in their communities. The Young Canadians’ Parliament came out of the Canadian Children’s Charter. Through our consultation with youth across the country, it was apparent that many kids felt unheard about issues important to them, especially younger children. The Young Canadians’ Parliament was established in response, to provide a forum for kids to learn about their rights and work with peers to create advocacy plans for action. We launched in June 2020, at the height of the pandemic. The response was overwhelming. It was all done virtually and it gave kids an opportunity to show up, be seen, be heard and participate in meaningful change. They could talk about things happening in real time and have a seat at the table with government leaders who were responsible for investments in these issues. We heard over and over again that kids felt a sense of meaning, purpose and connection to their peers and issues that matter to them.

Q: The Charter has 12 tenants. We want to get your insights on two that relate directly to TELUS Wise. Can you comment on the Charter’s commitment to end bullying?

SA: Kids continue to tell us that bullying is pervasive. Many kids are ill equipped to handle it - whether they experience it firsthand or see it happening to someone else. The Young Canadians’ Parliament chose to address bullying this past year, particularly cyber rights (the use of technology and the protection of human rights). They had very heated debates about whether technology was a force for good or evil. Specifically, they spoke about social media platforms. They want to use social media, but they feel companies need to provide better policies that account for their perspectives and experiences. They also believe the adults in their lives need to do more to help them use social media responsibly.

Q: Another tenant in the Charter is “respond to changing technology.” What are kids saying about this?

SA: It surprised me that “respond to changing technology” was named as one of the top issues. Kids told us they are using technology in ways that parents and teachers are not. They are several steps ahead of us, despite having room to learn and grow with respect to digital safety and citizenship. They want the adults in their lives to step up, do more and do better. Many adults are naïve when it comes to what their kids are doing online. They don’t think the risks - like online bullying, exploitation or identity theft - could impact them. Parents and teachers need to educate themselves to help keep kids safe in our digital world, and programs like TELUS Wise offer excellent resources to help them initiate these important conversations with the kids in their lives.

Q: What is your advice for parents, caregivers and teachers to help youth deal with cyberbullying and the ever-changing digital landscape?

SA: It’s critical for adults that are caring for kids that we equip ourselves with the knowledge and skills that we need to help our kids thrive in a digital world. There are lots of great, evidenced based resources available through TELUS Wise that you can use independently, or within your family or classroom. We also need to think about this as an area for continuous learning and improvement because the technology is changing rapidly, and our kids are often exposed faster than we are and are quicker to adapt and experiment.

It’s also critical that we keep the communication lines with our kids open – asking questions about what they’re learning, the tools they’re using, and what they’ve been exposed to. Creating a safe place where they can tell you anything without fear or shame is critical when it comes to their protection – particularly on issues like cyberbullying, sexting, online luring, or exposure to porn. Kids need to know that they can come to you for help, and in turn, we as parents or educators need to also be willing to initiate these conversations.

Q: Where does the hope lie?

SA: For me, the hope lies in the kids themselves. Many of the kids who helped to create the Charter are still on the front lines leading change. I have the privilege of watching these kids grow up and witnessing the exponential growth in their leadership capacity. For example, the Young Canadians’ Parliament held its final event in March this year. The participants released seven mock bills on a range of different topics including mental health, racism, housing and reconciliation. They conducted a year’s worth of research to create these bills, including meetings with members of Parliament. They also received extensive training on creating policy briefs and participating in debates, as well as public relations and government relations. It is remarkable to see these kids in action and watch them influence policy in real time.

It is important to note that all of these initiatives were done digitally. Nothing happened in person. They used digital documents, online forums and online surveys. It’s a great example of how technology can be used to empower kids’ self esteem, sense of purpose, connection to something bigger and hope for the future.

To learn more about helping our youth stay safe online, please check out our online workshop for parents at telus.com/WiseWorkshops

Tags:
Kids & tech
Cyberbullying
Safe digital habits
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