Parental absence leads to vulnerable children online

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Parental absence in monitoring online behaviour is leading to South African children being more exposed to online risks such as cyber bullying and online violence.

This is one of the findings of the preliminary Convergence Survey conducted by the Film and Publication Board (FPB) among 7 000 South African parents and guardians.

The study aims to provide an overview of the media content that South African children are exposed to through mobile phones, Internet, TV, public and domestic Internet, video games and DVDs. It also seeks to establish the public’s adherence to content consumption guidelines as set out by the FPB and establish public opinion on media exposure.

Delivering the preliminary results yesterday at the Safer Internet Day (SID) virtual event, hosted by the FPB, Oupa Makhalemele, research projects coordinator at the FPB, pointed out the lack of parental intervention and adequate monitoring controls of children’stech devices is leading to more South African children being vulnerable to threats such as cyber bullying, cyber predators, phishing and trolling.

According to the study, a third of parents across SA did not forbid their children or set boundaries to stop them from accessing and viewing certain content via the Internet. However, it notes there were certain Web sites that parents were concerned about, such as those displaying pornography and adult content.

“When we asked what measures have been put in place to block children’s access to certain Web sites, we found that in most cases there were none. However, in a few cases where boundaries had been set, we found that a number of parents did this through passwords to control Internet access and by monitoring online behaviour from time to time,” explained Makhalemele.

He pointed out that a high number of South African children have uncontrolled exposure to various forms of media, due to numerous contributing factors, such as easy access to digital devices; parents using media gadgets to keep children occupied; Internet access through smartphones; and parents, educators and caregivers not being aware of the potential harm posed by the Internet.

“The easily available tech devices mean information can easily be accessed by youth and they are spoiled for choice when it comes to media access, but also on the back of all these benefits lies the dangers. We have also found that many parents who find themselves busy tend to happily hand over these devices to children and appear to be absent when it comes to monitoring children’s online activities and behaviour.”

The study also found that less than a third of surveyed parents forbid their children from accessing social media, while 2.5% of parents forbid their children from playing online video games.

“This is a concern, especially in a country like SA, which is known to be a violent society. It’s concerning that these violent games are rated among their children’s favourite games, yet parents are not aware of the potential dangers. Research has shown that graphic and vivid video content, especially when accessed frequently, does have a direct co-relation with the proximity of becoming violent in real life.”

Education system should step in

In a separate interview with ITWeb, digital life skills expert Dean McCoubrey, who is also founder of online safety initiative MySociaLife, questioned whether SA’s education system is doing enough to protect children online.

McCoubrey noted that what SA requires are initiatives specifically focused on protecting children online, such as those introduced in European countries, including the e-Safety Commissioners and the Better Internet for Children Strategy.

"Together for a better Internet can only be achievable if SA’s government and regulators work together with platforms to educate and protect children. But this is not even happening in most developed countries.

“The power of social platforms, and the failure to educate in digital citizenship, has placed the responsibility solely in the lap of parents, teachers, students, counsellors and mental health professionals to understand the extent of what children have to cope with and manage online, exacerbated by COVID-19,” explains McCoubrey.

According to the App Annie State of Mobile Report 2021, casual games dominate downloads, with mobile gaming being on track to surpass $120 billion in consumer spending in 2021.

McCoubrey adds: "For adults right now there is an overwhelming workload, as well as financial and health pressure at this time, but we will have to take ownership of the fact that we expect learners to navigate these complex devices and social media platforms without providing them with a guide to navigate the content. We will need to understand what they're engaging with, in order to support and protect them."

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