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CONNECTED DOT COM: Young People’s Navigation of Online Risks

UNICEF South Africa/2007/Hearfield
© UNICEF South Africa/2007/Hearfield
There is substantial evidence to suggest that young people are well aware of online risks This awareness allows them to develop appropriate response and protection measures.

New study explores children’s use of social media in South Africa

Pretoria, November 2013 – Four in five children in South Africa have access to a mobile phone, and almost half of them use mobile phones to access the internet – especially social media platforms.

As mobile – and mobile internet – penetration increases, UNICEF in South Africa is paying attention to the vulnerability of children to abuse and exploitation in the online sphere.

A new study titled Connected Dot Com: Young People’s Navigation of Online Risks explores how children in South Africa make us of the ever increasing access to mobile technology and how they negotiate their safety online.

The study was conducted in 2012 through focus groups with 1600 learners in 93 schools across the country. It is a joint initiative of the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention and UNICEF.

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

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

“The study is the first of its kind in South Africa,” says Mr 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.”

A key finding is that children and young people are aware of the dangers they can encounter online, and they have developed strategies to prevent and deal with these risks.

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

 UNICEF South Africa/2013/de Villiers
© UNICEF South Africa/2013/de Villiers
Four out of five children in South Africa have access to a cellphone. As access increases, however, so do online risks.

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

Myth: Cyberbullying and other forms of online risks are a new epidemic that threatens the wellbeing of all children.

In fact, while the assumption is that cyberbullying and other forms of online harm clearly warrant concern and attention, this phenomenon still remains less common than other forms of offline bullying. This does not mean that attention should not be paid to the prevention of these behaviours, or to their impact on young people. Rather, it should be seen within the framework of violence more generally, and a realistic perspective on its extent, and its impact on young people, should be maintained. A more nuanced understanding of cyberbullying, and other forms of online violence is required, with a clear differentiation between risks or dangers, and associated harms.

Myth: Given the ubiquitous nature of mobile telephony in particular, and the internet more broadly, and the fact that boundaries and locations to a large degree cease to exist online, all children are equally vulnerable to, or at risk of, cyberbullying and other forms of online harm.

There is sufficient evidence emerging from research worldwide to suggest that a strong correlation exists between young people being vulnerable to other offline forms of violence and being most vulnerable to online harm. Similarly, it is these vulnerable children who are most likely to experience negative outcomes of online social interactions.

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

There is substantial evidence to suggest that young people are well aware of online risks, and of associated offline risks that may result from, or be associated with, online behaviour. This awareness allows children to develop appropriate response and protection measures of their own, which enable them to navigate and negotiate their online terrain safely. In many instances such responses utilise the technology and platforms in a more effective way than most adults – and specifically parents – are able to. It must be noted that in some instances these approaches may not be wholly adequate, but they are an important starting point, and can be utilised as the basis for the development of further safety strategies.

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

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

Myth: Controlling access to, and use of, social media specifically, and the internet and hardware more generally, will serve to protect children.

Among the most likely results of such restricting acts are: young people being excluded from the developmental opportunities that 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
For more information about UNICEF’s digital citizenship and safety initiative visit Voices of Youth Citizens





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