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Safe internet free of bullying is ultimate goal

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 07 Feb 2023

As the world commemorates Safer Internet Day (SID) today, calls for the protection of children’s online experience and digital identity have once again been amplified.

This, as children increasingly rely on the internet for their studies and social life.

Celebrated annually on the second day of the second week of the second month, Safer Internet Day was started as an initiative of the EU SafeBorders project in 2004. It is now celebrated in around 150 countries worldwide, including SA.

For its 20th edition, the annual flagship campaign’s core theme is "Together for a better internet", with organisers reiterating the call to action for stakeholders to contribute to a safer and better internet, especially for its youngest users.

South Africa’s Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA) has urged parents to commit to be “present, aware and involved” when it comes to their children’s online and offline activities in 2023.

ISPA highlights the very real danger of cyber bullying and other online-based threats to minor children, saying the country’s parents and guardians must keep children safe across all environments.

According to the industry body, there are many content blockers, monitoring apps and other high-tech interventions to keep children safe in cyberspace.

“As the primary learning tool for growing numbers of young people around the globe, the internet must become safer. ISPA calls on South African parents, guardians and others to spread the online safety message while researching parental control this year.

“Parental controls can support efforts to keep kids’ internet experiences safe, fun and productive. They can only work, however, when used openly and honestly in partnership with children.

“Parents should understand that parental controls are not 100% effective and therefore it is very important to talk to your child about using the internet safely.”

In addition to managing children’s access on the internet, ISPA suggests focusing on child behaviours and family values to help keep children safe online.

“Actively talk to your children about the risks of the internet in an age-appropriate way. Explain that just as in the real world, there are sometimes bad people and places online.

“Consider drawing up social media and internet access contracts between parents, guardians and children. There are many good templates for downloading online.

“It is important to understand that the internet abounds with online predators, cyber bullies and unsavoury content, and it is therefore vital that parents ensure they understand how the internet is used by the younger generation.”

Cyber safety stats from UK-based broadband price comparison website Uswitch.com show that over half of 12- to 15-year-olds have had some form of harmful online experience.

In addition, one in eight young people have been bullied through social media, with 53% of 11- to 16-year-olds said to have seen explicit material online.

Max Beckett, broadband expert at Uswitch.com, comments: “With the online world becoming increasingly intertwined with our children’s lives, parental controls should be a tool that all caregivers know how to use. Sadly, with only one in three parents currently using the controls available to them, there needs to be a better understanding of how to use them.

“It’s very easy to stumble upon harmful content on the web, so it’s natural that we would want to protect our children from that. However, parental controls are useful for much more. They give us the ability to teach our children how to use the internet wisely, and what is trustworthy or not − which are critical life skills in this day and age.

“While it’s frustrating that different devices and platforms all have different sets of parental controls, setting them up on as many devices as you can is the best way to plug all the gaps. It will help you ensure your child can enjoy everything they want from the internet with minimal risks to their safety.”

Safer internet

Digital skills organisation Digify Africa notes online safety should be a priority for all, so it invites everyone to join the movement towards building a safer internet.

“Days like Safer Internet Day are key for highlighting the importance of creating safer online communities,” says Polly Sekwala, project manager of Digify Africa’s Ilizwe Lam.

“The internet, especially social media platforms, has permeated our everyday lives. This has come with a number of online threats, therefore it’s imperative that we understand and offer tools that empower people to be more responsible in how they navigate their online world.”

As part of its mission to promote online safety, Digify Africa has, among its programmes, been delivering Ilizwe Lam since 2018 in high schools across SA, with the support of Meta (formerly Facebook).

The Ilizwe Lam initiative offers essential digital literacy training as part of broader efforts to promote internet safety and encourage young people to be better digital citizens, according to the organisation.

Furthermore, Digify Africa has released other WhatsApp learning bots – Naledi, Kitso and Lesedi – which cater to a different skills gap, but are designed to break access barriers to digital skill and resources.

Sekwala explains: “We have various training programmes that focus on building better understanding of online internet safety. Our programmes also cater to different communities, with Ilizwe Lam catering mostly to high school learners between the ages of 13-18. Kisto, our most recent bot, targets the educator and parent community who play an integral role in supporting safer online use with their learners and children.

“We are also one of the training partners for the Department of Basic Education as part of their Presidential Youth Employment Initiative, where we are upskilling educator assistants with critical digital literacy skills.

“We encourage the public to take time to learn more about online dangers and how they can protect themselves and children through free learning tools like Kitso [by adding] this number 076 593 7181 on WhatsApp,” she concludes.

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