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South Africa

Study in South Africa looks at reality and myths of cyberbullying

© UNICEF South Africa/2013/De Villiers
A new study, Connected Dot Com: Young People’s Navigation of Online Risks, examines how children navigate digital risks in South Africa, where access to mobile phones and Internet is increasing.

By Emma De Villiers

Children face a variety of threats online, but they also know how to protect themselves and navigate the dangers they face, according to a recent UNICEF-supported study. 

PRETORIA, South Africa, 6 February 2014 – As mobile telephone and mobile internet penetration increases throughout the county, UNICEF in South Africa is paying close attention to children’s vulnerability to abuse and exploitation in the online sphere.

Four in five children in South Africa have access to a mobile phone, and almost half of them use a mobile phone to access the Internet – especially social media platforms. This rapidly changing environment has enormous potential to empower young people to build communities, but it also raises concerns about child safety.

A new study titled Connected Dot Com: Young People’s Navigation of Online Risks explores how children in South Africa are making use of mobile technology and how they negotiate their safety online. Some of the results are surprising.

Navigating risk

The study – a joint initiative of the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention (CJCP) and UNICEF – was conducted in 2012 through focus groups in 93 schools across the country.

© UNICEF South Africa/2007/Hearfield
The report finds substantial evidence that the majority of young people are aware of the risks they face online, allowing them to develop protective measures of their own.

“As children and young people are spending an increasing amount of time online, we need to be actively present in that space too,” says Thierry Delvigne-Jean, Chief of Communication and Partnerships at UNICEF South Africa.

“The study is the first of its kind in South Africa,” says Patrick Burton, Executive Director of the CJCP. “It explores how children deal with the dangers they encounter online, and the strategies that they develop to mitigate these risks, rather than just focusing on the dangers themselves.”

The study shows that one in five secondary-school learners have experienced some form of cyberbullying or other violence online. But it also shows that children and young people are aware of the dangers. and they have developed strategies to prevent and deal with these risks.

“We wanted to hear from young people themselves about their experience online,” Mr. Delvigne-Jean says. “The findings show there are risks and potential harms online, but also that children are more resilient than we think.”

Dispelling myths

In addition to noting online behavioural traits, the study dispels some common myths about online safety and children:

Myth: Cyberbullying and other online risks are an epidemic that threatens the well-being of all children.

Cyberbullying clearly warrants concern and attention, but it remains less common than bullying in the physical world. This does not mean that attention should not be paid to preventing these behaviours, or to their impact on young people. Rather, they should be seen within the framework of violence more generally

Myth: All children are equally vulnerable to cyberbullying and online harm, given that physical and social boundaries largely disappear online.

Research worldwide suggests a strong correlation between young people being vulnerable to offline violence and being more vulnerable to online harm. Similarly, it is these vulnerable children who are most likely to experience negative social interactions online.

© UNICEF South Africa/2013/De Villiers
At the report’s launch, UNICEF South Africa Representative Aida Girma (above) expressed hope that the study would improve ways to protect children from online risks.

Myth: Young people are unaware of the dangers and risks that exist online, and they need to be protected.

There is substantial evidence to suggest that young people are well aware of online risks, and of offline risks associated with online behaviour. This awareness allows children to develop appropriate response and protection measures of their own, which help them navigate and negotiate their online terrain more safely.

Myth: Online risks and the dangers faced by young people are the same as harms.

The majority of children are aware of possible risks they face online. In fact, very few of the risks that present themselves to young people online result in actual harm, either physical or emotional, to the child. This is nowhere more marked than when online encounters evolve into offline contact. The most serious of the dangers faced by children – harm associated with offline contact – is probably the least common.

Myth: Controlling access to social media and the Internet will serve to protect children.

Among the most likely results of such restrictions are: young people being excluded from the developmental opportunities this technology presents; young people being placed at a learning disadvantage as technology increasingly infiltrates schools and classrooms; and social exclusion, which may itself increase the risks of other forms of harm.

Download the study: Connected Dot Com: Young People’s Navigation of Online Risks https://www.unicef.org/southafrica/resources_14002.html

For more information about UNICEF’s digital citizenship and safety initiative, visit Voices of Youth Citizens http://www.voicesofyouth.org/citizens



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