And it comes as no surprise. A recent survey conducted by UNICEF in partnership with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, MXit, and the University of Cape Town, revealed that 30 per cent of MXit users admitted to spending most of their after-school time socialising on the platform. 25,876 South African youths recently took part in the survey, which looked at how young people interact on the social media platform.
"The rise of the mobile internet in South Africa means that more people, especially youth, are using social networks as key tools in their identity formation. This timely report provides an important piece of the puzzle to understanding the formation of mobile youth cultures; and exploring the role that cellphone applications play in the lives of young South Africans," says Dr Tanja Bosch, senior lecturer in the Centre for Film and Media Studies at the University of Cape Town.
This survey is a component of a global campaign undertaken by UNICEF to raise awareness around the optimal and safe use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), entitled the Digital Citizenship and Safety Project. The project seeks to address the impact ICTs are having on children’s experiences and how widespread ICT-access is affecting their lifestyle.
Africa is currently the world’s fastest growing market for mobile communications and access to information technology is essential for economic, social, cultural and political development in today’s world. Mobile technology, the internet and social networks can make vital information more accessible to children and to create platforms for discussion and participation on matters that affect them, as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). UNICEF believes that ICTs have the potential to empower children and young people – particularly in the developing world – but access should be accompanied by education and regulation to ensure that children’s safety is not compromised.
Published today, the study is based on a questionnaire sent out to a portion of MXit’s over 44 million users and the first research project undertaken of the platform by UNICEF. MXit is a mobile instant messaging and social networking application that is free, and for people aged above 13, with the majority of users aged 18-25.
The UNICEF and MXit study revealed that 75% talk to strangers at least once a week while 42% do so every day. Similarly, when asked what respondents do most at home, 30% said that they chat on MXit – and 68 % indicated that they most often talk to family and friends.
However, the high frequency with which MXit users are interacting with strangers, highlights the need for parents, organisations working with children and peer-groups to engage with young people about the potential risks of the digital world and how to avoid them.
“Children are incredibly adept at figuring out new technologies. And while they may have technical knowledge, they are not always aware of some of the implications of using the technology. UNICEF is committed to ensuring that young people not only benefit from innovation, but they are safe from anyone seeking to exploit them through these platforms,” says Aida Girma, UNICEF South Africa Representative.
Social media and mobile phones have also made young people vulnerable to new means of bullying or victimisation. The survey found that 26% of those answering had been insulted or experienced some form of ‘cyber-bullying’. Race, location and gender emerged as the most common reasons for insult.
In 2010 UNICEF teamed up with MXit to create the Red Card – a free portal on child rights with safety guidelines informing young people when they are being inappropriately groomed – that has been added by over 51,000 MXit users to date. MXit is committed to ensuring the safety of its users by moderating chatrooms; creating age restrictions on content and features; making the reporting of abuse simple; and working with the authorities whenever necessary.
The study also hints at a continuing regional disparity in access to mobile internet in South Africa – around 90 per cent of respondents identified themselves as ‘urban’. While mobile penetration in South Africa is the highest on the continent and the mobile phone is increasingly most people’s connection to the interne – the survey data suggests that youth in rural areas are not benefitting from the wealth of information and services internet access brings as much as their urban peers.
To access the full report visit: www.unicef.org
For more information contact:
Priscillia Kounkou-Hoveyda, UNICEF Division of Communications New York
Kate Pawelczyk, Communication Officer, UNICEF South Africa
For more information on UNICEF South Africa visit www.unicef.org/southafricaor find us on Facebook: UNICEF South Africa
Note on sampling:
The sampling frame for the survey was constructed to achieve 99% confidence interval and less than 1% margin of error, however it is possible that the sample is not representative of the entire population of MXit users, since some users chose not to take the survey.
News of the recent gang-rape of a 17-year-old mentally handicapped girl from Soweto, South Africa, has been met with a collective sense of disgust and anger from communities.
Notwithstanding the outrage over this crime and the blatant abuse of the rights of an individual, the fact that the perpetrators recorded the footage and it went viral has raised concern among authorities, social workers and community leaders about the consequences of access to social media in the wrong hands.
In technology lingo ‘to go viral’ is a term which describes how quickly an Internet item is disseminated to the mass market.
It means that multi-media content, including videos, can be recorded and shared instantly and immediately, which can make footage difficult to control.
The incident sparked intense debate about the psychological condition of those responsible. Media commentators also described as disturbing the amount of requests they received by members of the public for the relevant links in order to view the footage.
It also triggered a response from the South African Film & Publications Board (FPB) which, in a media statement posted on its website, warned those in possession of- or who continue to distribute footage of the rape that they could face prosecution from the Board under the Film and Publications Act.
CEO of the FPB Yoliswa Makhasi has expressed shock at the video and has reacted angrily to the increased interest on social media of people wanting to get hold of the ‘rape video’. “An inhumane criminal act has occurred here. We warn members of the public to refrain from distributing the said video as doing so, may lead to them being criminally prosecuted for distributing child pornography” said Makhasi.
Makhasi further added that “as the FPB we will seek an audience with the prosecutors to urge them to include charges of creating and distributing child pornography against the accused who, at this stage, we believe filmed this gruesome act. We also urge the media not to publish links or explicit images emanating from the ‘rape video’ in this regard, due consideration for the protection of children from exposure to this kind of explicit and violent content must be considered and prioritized”
Internet experts and those who operate in this medium say the issue is not about any difference in application of online resources in either developing or developed economies.
In developed nations, the issue of cyber-bullying, for example, continues to blemish the advent and application of social networks in society – as does the ongoing problem of transferring sexually explicit material over networks.
A recent Sky News report spoke of the growing problem of ‘sexting’ or sending explicit material, usually via mobile phones, within UK schools.
Closer to home and a recent Independent Online report detailed the case of a Kwa-Zulu Natal (KZN) teenager who tried to commit suicide after her name was placed on a so-called ‘slut list’. According to the report the list also went viral on social networks Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger.
Organisers behind global initiatives established to protect users, particularly children, from dangers inherent within digital social communities, say the number of youth in Africa engaging the digital world is increasing at a rapid rate.
The numbers and growth in volume of young online browsers is keeping up with that of Europe says Daniel Asfaw, Founder of ACOPEA, a global organisation dedicated to online and offline protection of children, and a partner of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Child Online Protection (COP) initiative.
Statistics provided by ACOPEA say, according to ITU Global Telecom Indicator 2011 in Africa, there are over 500 million cell phone subscriptions, 89 million mobile broadband subscriptions and 139 million Internet users
The organisation focuses on education and awareness across Africa and the provision of mechanisms to report abuse and protect the rights of citizens in cyberspace.
“Our children in Africa are inhabiting the online world in ever-increasing numbers. Just like their EU counterparts they need protection and now. All stakeholders need to endorse and support this initiative. Acopea is to be an executing arm of the ITU COP initiative in Africa,” said Asfaw.
Combating the problem
Understanding the problem is crucial to efforts to solve it, claim those who run legitimate, value-add Internet-based businesses.
Tomisin Fashina, CEO of Yookos, an African social platform that talks to African issues, says the growing role of technology in society is aptly summed up by Kranzberg’s first law: technology is neither good or bad – nor is it neutral. It always has some effect.
“The big thing about the explosion of user-generated content that swamps us every day is that there are a lot of people seeking attention out there, and they often turn to fear or shock-based content to grab our attention. I’m not sure we can always regulate this. But we should certainly be examining the values we put out through technology and social media, and thinking more deeply about the kind of content we create and consume,” adds Fashina.
“I think the obvious issue around being safe online is being careful what you share in terms of your personal details and content. Once you put content out there, there’s no taking it back. So you should be very sure that your online interactions talk strongly to your values,” he notes.
Asfaw notes that African states are signatories to “Article 17 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was approved by the United Nations General Assembly in 1989, on access to information by children and protection from information and material injurious to their well-being;”
“As such these states have a duty to safeguard children and young people in the continent from the risks these technologies pose,” he adds.
“If children in Africa are denied their basic rights to COP, sincerely speaking, we don’t really stand a chance against the other continents who take pride in ensuring their children enjoy the best years of their childhood online safely and are groomed into becoming responsible leaders and cybercitizens,” Asfaw says.
He emphasises the role of governments throughout Africa to help develop responsible cybercitizens, as well as private companies, industries and technology vendors to champion the protection of children using these technologies.