By Adam Wakefield

Today, thanks to the rise of the Internet and all that is connect with it, any form of media or piece of information is but a click away. While it’s arguably the Internet’s greatest blessing, it’s also the source of its most pressing dangers, especially where younger online users, such as children, are concerned.

“For children, there are various issues to consider such as their physical safety, their emotional intelligence levels and their ability to deal with images and content meant for adult consumption,” says Rianette Leibowitz, a cyber safety activist and founder of SaveTNet Cyber Safety NPC.

“Parents often think their kids are safe if they’ve had a couple of conversations. However, we have to remember that even adults fall in the traps of syndicates – be it phishing scams, hacked profiles or even ransomware. Another misconception is that kids understand the long-term consequences and how their online behaviour will influence their employability.”

Online and social pressures

Fellow online safety activist and digital marketing consultant, Jacqui Mackway-Wilson from Stay Safe Online SA, says children and teens often take the online world at “face value” and share too much information, with their lack of life experience leaving room for dangerous decision-making.

Beyond online interactions, Mackway-Wilson argues there are also social pressures such as children and teens wanting to own the same equipment as their peers, whether they are prepared for such a responsibility or not.
“Parents often take it for granted that their teenagers ‘know’ how to conduct themselves in various online environments simply because they are digital natives,” Mackway-Wilson says.

“However, they need to ask and have the necessary conversations to find out what they really do know and whether or not they know what to do in a variety of potentially threatening scenarios, as well as how to pre-empt and avoid unnecessary threats to their safety, well-being and also their reputations.”

Online bullying and other online dangers

The dangers the online world pose are multifaceted and varied. According to Leibowitz, online threats can have both physical and psychological consequences on the victim. Both Leibowitz and Mackway-Wilson cite cyberbullying as a notable online danger.

“In the past, bullying would happen at school only, however with digital devices, the bullying caries on as long as the device is switched on,” Leibowitz says.

“This continuous abuse and exposure to negative input has detrimental effects. When this happens to an adult, it is called harassment and could also have devastating effects.”

The stages of cyberbullying include humiliation, rejection by peers including being taken off groups or shared platforms, depression, and if not dealt with correctly, physical self-harm to the point of suicide.

Mackway-Wilson says cyberbullying is a common and growing problem among younger people around the world, with South Africa no different. With the reporting of such incidents in the minority, it makes curbing cyberbullying very difficult.

According to a 2012 UNISA study, only 27% of South African children reported cyberbullying, while a 2015 multi-country survey by mobile service provider Vodafone found 24% of children between 13 and 18-years-old had been bullied online. According to the same survey, 84% of South African respondents had heard about cyberbullying happening to someone else.

A further 64% of South African respondents said cyberbullying is worse than being bullied in person.

Other online threats included online stalking, sexual grooming, exposure to pornography, revenge porn, hacked webcams, hacked profiles, ransomware and human trafficking.

Another pervasive effect of online behaviour, according to Mackway-Wilson, is becoming addicted to technology, with adults also falling victim to such behaviour.

For children, Mackway-Wilson believes addiction to technology not only has negative health consequences such as lack of exercise and obesity, but also negatively affecting brain development, attention spans and, “perhaps most importantly”, interpersonal communication skills due to excess screen time.

Next week we will take a look at what can be done to protect vulnerable people from the dark side of the online world.

Have you or someone you know been a victim of online bullying or other online threats? Let us know in the comment below.