SA's teenage girls bear brunt of online attacks

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Teenage girls in SA suffer more online risks than their global peers, says Microsoft.
Teenage girls in SA suffer more online risks than their global peers, says Microsoft.

South African millennials and teenagers, particularly teenage girls, are most affected by online risks, such as receiving offensive or obscene content, Internet hoaxes and fake news, and bullying and offensive name-calling.

This is according to Microsoft's 2019 Digital Civility Index, which was released yesterday. The report notes South Africans are among the most at risk for exposure to negative behaviour online.

The annual study examines the online behaviour of Internet users in 22 countries and its release coincided with this week's international Safer Internet Day; a call to action for all stakeholders to join together in creating a better Internet for everyone, especially younger users.

Digital civility

It gauges the attitudes and perceptions of teens between 13 and 17 and adults between 18 and 74 about the state of digital civility today. It also measures people's safety online and exposure to risks, such as cyber bullying, unwanted contact and harassment, as well as exposure to hoaxes and scams.

This year, SA ranked 21st out of 22 countries surveyed for exposure to online risks.

"South Africans in general were found to suffer significant pain from online risks, with the most common hazards being unwanted contact from sources attempting to collect personal information, Internet hoaxes and fake news, bullying and offensive name-calling and receiving unwanted sexual imagery; all of which were more prevalent in South Africa than the rest of the world," says Kethan Parbhoo, chief marketing and operations officer at Microsoft SA.

The report discovered that SA's millennials, especially teenage girls, experienced the most risks.

South African teenage girls suffer more than their global peers, with 68% reporting moderate to severe pain from online risks compared to 61% in the rest of the world, says Microsoft.

It points out that there has, however, been an increase in South African teens asking for help: 54% say they will ask a parent for help as opposed to 42% globally, while 37% will approach another adult for assistance compared to the global average of 28%.

Globally, 73% of millennials reported having been exposed to online risk. They also reported the highest levels of stress, pain, loss of online trust, sleep deprivation and depression as a result of online risk exposure compared to other age groups.

In contrast, millennials self-identified as the most confident of all age groups in their ability to handle risks; however, 60% of millennials admitted they were unsure where to find help should they be exposed to online risk, says Microsoft.

The level of risk exposure and their follow-on consequences was higher for girls than boys, the global study found.

Emotional pain

Pain from risks was also stronger and sustained longer for girls, and incidents were more emotionally burdensome when compared to boys, it adds.

Though girls reported less confidence in dealing with risks, they took more mitigating actions following them, including blocking or unfriending the perpetrator, reducing the amount of information shared online, and using tighter privacy settings on social media.

Sixty-two percent of girls reported that gender was the reason they were targeted, compared to 39% for boys. The gap was highest for sexual and personal/intrusive risks.

There was also a higher incidence of South Africans being called offensive names, with 56% having experienced this as opposed to 51% globally.

According to Microsoft, perhaps the biggest risk that emerged, though, was receiving unwanted and unsolicited sexual images or messages. Seventy-eight percent of South Africans have been sent these types of images or messages, which is markedly higher than the 67% global average.

Interestingly, these risks do not just emanate from strangers, with 30% of South African Internet users facing risks from family and friends. This was an increase of 9% in just a year.

"South Africa experienced more consequences from risks, but showed mixed results in taking positive action," says Parbhoo. "Over half of South Africans surveyed (55%) became less trusting of people online, and 34% said they were less likely to participate in social media, blogs and online forums."

Online victims

Meanwhile, in a separate study in light of Safer Internet Day, public opinion and data company YouGov released the results of a study which shows many Internet users in SA are still not doing enough to safeguard themselves online.

Commissioned by Google and conducted among 1 005 Internet users in the country, the study shows 53% of respondents received phishing e-mails from people imitating legitimate sources in order to fraudulently gain access to their personal information, including passwords and bank details.

Another whopping 24% of South African Internet users admit to having fallen victim to online scams in which they ended up making upfront payment for a product or service that did not exist.

Despite the fact that more than a quarter (28%) of respondents have had someone gain unauthorised access to their social media and/or e-mail accounts, and that 65% of South Africans are concerned about protecting their financial information (like banking details) online, few South African Internet users actually take advantage of readily-available services and safeguards.

The study found:

* 43% of South Africans use the same password for most or all of their online services.
* Only 34% of South Africans use two-step verification for all their online accounts.
* A total of 11% of South Africans have no recovery phone number or e-mail address for their online accounts.
* 21% of South Africans update their online passwords less frequently than once every six months.
* 26% of South Africans never use tools like Google Security Check-Up to review their security settings.

"This is concerning," says Fortune Mgwili-Sibanda, who heads up public policy and government relations at Google SA.

"This research shows South Africans are well aware of the dangers that present themselves online, yet so few are proactively using tools available to protect them from online predators."

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