The internet can be a wonderful tool for children: it connects people, improves digital literacy, and facilitates learning. But online access also comes with risks, such as children viewing inappropriate content, cyberbullying, and online predators.
Despite the fact that South Africa has one of the highest inequality gaps in the world, the internet is becoming increasingly accessible to all South Africans, regardless of their socio-economic status. In fact, a 2012 study conducted by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention (CJCP), in collaboration with Facebook, found that 19% of internet users in South Africa were living below the poverty line.
A 2016 CJCP report found that nearly half of South Africa’s internet child users were able to access the internet whenever they wanted. The CJCP report also found that:
- 20,5% of participants aged between 9 and 17 said they had received messages containing X-rated websites ads.
- 19,2% said they had opened a message, or link in a message, showing pictures of naked people or people having sex.
- 20,3% said they had seen or received a sexual message, image or video about someone they did want.
- 46,2% of participants aged between 9 and 11 admitted meeting with a stranger they got to know online face to face, while 41,4 % of participants aged between 12 and 14 admitted doing so.
- 25,5% of participants aged between 15 and 17 said they were treated in a hurtful or nasty manner online.
The impact of online risks
According to Microsoft’s global 2019 Digital Civility Index (DCI), South Africans are among the most at risk for exposure to negative behaviour online. The study gauges the attitudes, behaviours and perceptions of teenagers between 13 and 17 (and adults between 18 and 74), relating to the state of digital civility.
The study further measures people’s safety online and exposure to risks such as cyberbullying, unwanted contact and harassment, as well as exposure to hoaxes and scams. The annual study examines the online behaviour of internet users in 22 countries and this year, South Africa ranked 21st out of 22 countries surveyed for exposure to online risks.
The study shows that South African teenage girls suffer more than their global peers, with 68% reporting moderate to severe pain from online risks, while the numbers stand at 61% in the rest of the world. The study further shows that there is an increase in the numbers of South African teenagers asking for help: 54% said that they would ask a parent for help as opposed to 42% globally, while 37% said they would approach another adult for assistance as opposed to the global average of 28%.
The study found that the level of risk exposure and its consequences was higher for girls than boys. Pain from risks was also stronger and remained longer for girls, and incidents were more emotionally oppressive when compared to boys.
Policy and legislation
South Africa has legislation – both pre-existing and proposed – to strengthen online child protection, including the Film and Publications Amendment Act (which, along with further regulating the classification of publications, films and games, it also proposes to regulate prohibited online content, such as child pornography); the Child Justice Act (which protects the rights of children who are accused of, or who have committed, crimes); and the Electronic Communications Transaction Act (which also deals with online privacy and ICT related offences).
The protection of children online also falls under the ambit of various auxiliary laws such as the Criminal Amendment Act, the Protection of Personal Information Act, and the Prevention for Combating of Trafficking in Persons Act.
The Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT)
The DCDT leverages existing initiatives and has created a coherent policy and strategy, called the National Children’s Empowerment and ICT Strategy. Because the DCDT has committed to connecting every citizen in South Africa to the internet, it also has a duty to protect children online.
The Child Online Protection Programme (COP) identifies risks and vulnerabilities of children in cyberspace, creates awareness, and develops practical tools, such as guidelines for parents and reporting mechanisms for predatory behaviour and cyberbullying. The COP also holds ISPs, mobile operators, and content creators accountable through a comprehensive policy framework.
The Film and Publications Board (FPB)
In addition to the classification of content, the FBP is also tasked to protect children from harmful content by educating the public on the role of the FPB, as well as raising awareness campaigns for both children and parents – which extends to online content. According to a recent news report, South Africa has become a “fertile hunting ground” for online child sexual predators who use the internet and social media to target minors.
The FPB points out that 101 cases were referred to the board in 2018-19, mostly via its hotline, with some cases being referred to the International Association of Internet Hotlines (INHOPE, a global network of hotlines that deal with illegal content online, specifically content that targets children).
Civil society’s role
Sectors of South Africa’s civil society actively participate in implementing communal online monitoring and advocating for better crime prevention. They play a crucial role in providing online child safety tips, destigmatising cyber-attacks, and localising online safety research and education. Moreover, civil society leverages national research for localised solutions, provides sector-specific training, and also promotes social justice.
Civil society groups that are active in South Africa include the CJCP, Save the Children SA, Childline, INHOPE, and the NICRO diversion programme.
The key challenges
The internet is borderless, and access to it is very hard to control. While there is legislation in place to deal with criminal issues such as child pornography, internet governance without censorship remains a major challenge. Furthermore, most legislation is either inadequate or too ambiguous to address the ever-shifting online environment.
In terms of implementation and application, South African law enforcement does not have the necessary training and skills when it comes to online crimes, and there is a general lack of accountability on online platforms, especially social media. All of these issues need to be addressed in a coherent, flexible manner in order to protect children online – failure of which may have dire consequences.
Most importantly, we must remember that the psychological impact of online risks for children is high and can have lasting effects, well into adulthood. While the work done by the FPB has made great strides in educating the public about online risks, governance of the internet needs to adapt when it comes to regulation and implementation.
Pygma Consulting is a Johannesburg-based consulting firm with extensive experience in ICT policy, regulatory and strategy advisory, and compliance across Africa. We have a wealth of experience in issues pertaining to the protection of children online, including contributing to the review of the FPB’s current classification guidelines.
For more information, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org