We attended a recent webinar entitled “Maintaining the human touch in a digitally connected world”. The focus on protecting children was readily apparent. Moreover, it was highly appropriate given the proximity to Youth Day in South Africa. We take a summarizing look at the presented topic.

The battle of protecting children belongs to the nation as a whole

South Africa’s national Department of Communications is a long-standing proponent of online safety campaigns for the youth. Furthermore, they are constantly supportive of the youth proposing a larger budget for such campaigns.

On the 2nd of October 2019, the President passed the Film and Publications Board (FPB) Amendment Act, a law created to protect children from harmful content. While its mandate and efficacy remain debated, the Act empowers the FPB to take action & issue sanctions against non-compliant content distributors. In the eyes of many, this is crucial for government’s ability to keep South Africa’s children safe online.

Strong message from the Deputy Minister of Communications

Ms. Pinky Kekana, Deputy Minister for the Department of Communications, was a keynote speaker of the address. Her message, delivered as a parent and mother first, suggested that we need to increase protection efforts if we are to meet the demands faced by the surge in online activity. She stated that while South Africa accounts for less than 10% of Africa’s Internet users, this gives us a chance to develop stronger online foundations pertaining to children’s rights.

In addition to this, Ms. Kekana is a believer that it takes a village to raise a child. Thus, it also becomes our responsibility as parents to protect children on behalf of other parents, who may not know all they need to in order to keep their children safe. “We spend our entire life concerned with security issues…in a bid to giving our children all that we did not have,” she said. “Parents across the world hand over the most expensive gadget or device they can afford, without any security…on it. In this scenario, there is no limit to what children are exposed to.”

COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the goalposts

The Deputy Minister went on to address responsibility further in light of the current pandemic. She stated that, especially during this time of heightened online activity, protecting children is about more than just those very same children. She identified the need to educate and raise awareness in all children, parents, guardians and teachers. This included informing them of all they need to know in order to stay safe and recognise potential dangers.

“We stand at the cusp of a new normal,” she concluded, “(and) an opportunity to do things better. Forging new paths, or strengthening existing ones. Children are not just our future; they are our legacy.”

The youth share their views

Among the participants of the webinar were also a group of South African youths, who were given the opportunity to present their thoughts on the matter at hand. Their concerns ranged from unscrupulous characters to parents not being knowledgeable enough.

“Things that make me feel unsafe online? Those adults pretending to be other people, using false identities. And that there is no privacy on online platforms,” said one youth attendee. Another also chimed in along similar lines. “Things that make me feel unsafe…talking to someone I don’t know, other people posting naked pictures. And downloading apps that are not safe or need your particulars.” Furthermore, a third youth also highlighted a common concern. “Parents can also be more involved. Some parents do not even understand how social media works.”

These sentiments echoed the feelings held among many, namely that we need more education. What’s more, such education should also impart the relevant obligations children’s caregivers have.

Protecting children today, empowering them for tomorrow

Bruce Layzell, national director at World Vision South Africa, agreed with this approach. Furthermore, he encouraged people to think big. According to him, every child needs to be online, as this creates access to education, cultural, science and language opportunities. His notion is that children who are thus empowered are that way because someone educated them and their caregivers.

When it comes to protecting children, his message was also clear. He supported the tightening up of current protection laws. His ideal goal is a reality where someone who perpetrates anything against children online receives punishment as severe as those perpetrating it in real life.

Online and offline risks

Children typically face many risks online as they search for opportunities. This was the message from Sinah Moruane, a UNICEF Online Safety Project Manager. She pointed out that, according to UNICEF, the period of 2018-2019 gave rise to 367 million new Internet users, including 122 million children. When added to the number of hours children are spending online during lockdown periods, this created an online community rife with dangers.

In addition, she pointed out that the risks don’t always stay online. Risky behaviour and the associated online harm can often correlate to harm in real life. Child victims of online peer behaviour, for example, are sometimes so humiliated that it affects their mental well-being. She suggested that the trick was finding a balance between children’s rights to empowerment, information and freedom of expression in digital environments, with their right to be protected from violence, exploitation and abuse.

Protecting children can be challenging

It isn’t always an easy task monitoring children’s online activities and taking the steps to help them avoid the pitfalls. Even the popular social media app TikTok has fallen into the sights of law enforcement of late. Officials warned parents about letting their children use it, and encouraged to teach their children safe practices.

Above all, you should involve the children themselves from the start. A good proportion of them are as savvy as their caregivers, if not more so, when it comes to online activities. Couple their know-how with responsible adults’ sense of safety, and it’s an excellent start to keeping them digitally safe.

Adept would like to thank all the presenters and their organisations for the recent webinar. We urge for greater protection for children and are supporters of our regulatory body’s resources for protecting minors, as well as ISPA’s cybersafety guidelines.