Children at risk of online bullying

Cyberbullying among schoolchildren is a major concern, research conducted late last year at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University among nearly 1 600 pupils strongly suggests.

It is very worrying, then, that nearly two-thirds of the primary and secondary school children we surveyed do not need to ask permission to access the internet. Do parents really understand what their children are doing on the internet?

Our research centred on 1 594 learners at three primary and three secondary schools in the Nelson Mandela Bay area. The learners, who ranged across grades six to 12, completed questionnaires on their own online habits. Our main findings were that:

  • 5,8% of these learners spend more than four hours a day on the internet;
  • 37% use it in their bedrooms;
  • 63% do not have to ask permission before accessing it and more than 54% are not supervised when using the internet;
  • 90% use social networking sites;
  • MXit and Facebook were preferred above all others and more than 67% access these sites on a daily basis;
  • 36% had experienced some form of cyberbullying and almost half of them said they had not told anybody about this;
  • 50% said they would prefer talking to a friend or a peer if they are being cyberbullied, 40% would talk to a parent and only 2% would choose to talk to a teacher; and
  • 40% had met someone in the real world to whom they had only chatted to online and 30% said that it had not been who they thought it was going to be.

    For all its wonders and advantages, it is apt to compare the internet to the wide wild west of yesteryear because of the numerous threats that are associated with it, especially for our youth.

    A few years ago desktop computers were the only way to connect to the internet. But now most mobile phones, personal digital assistants and even some game consoles can access the internet. When parents give their child a mobile phone today, it is not just a phone anymore—it is a mobile computer with, in most cases, powerful internet capabilities.

    This means most children nowadays have some sort of unsupervised access to internet-related facilities and services. Parents should understand that children may be mentally quick with technology but not always aware of all the risks involved.

    In particular, children might not have the skills necessary to keep themselves safe online, meaning that they are not always concerned about the personal information they post on online sites. Social networking tools, such as Facebook and MXit, can make users more vulnerable to risk.

    Because children share almost any information about themselves on these sites, it becomes easy to figure out where a child lives and what his or her daily routine is and this can lead to life-threatening consequences.

    The results of our own research should be a major concern. Cyber­bullying is indeed a growing concern. When someone is harassed, threatened or humiliated by nasty messages or pictures using email, mobile phones or social networking sites that is cyberbullying. We have reason to suspect from a number of recent suicides that the effects of cyberbullying can be as devastating as physical bullying—or even more so.

    Under most circumstances, parents do not understand their children’s internet activities. This leads to additional concerns, because the parents feel that they do not have the education or knowledge to protect their children while they are engaged in cyber-related activities.

    Responsible parents normally make sure they know where their children go when they leave home, who they visit, when they will be back home, and so on. But, on the other hand, these same “responsible” parents seem happy to allow their children to wander through cyber-dungeons in the privacy of their bedrooms, talk to strangers online and spread their personal information all over the world.

    Clearly the solution lies in appropriate education and awareness to children, parents and teachers respectively. Our own initiative now will be to run a series of targeted educational and awareness programmes as the next phase of our research project.

    Professor Rossouw von Solms is director of the Institute for ICT Advancement at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and Mariska de Lange is a master’s student in information technology at the university

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