The hidden evils of cyberspace

According to Professor Anesh Maniraj Singh, head of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Graduate School of Business, whose main fields of research are e-business and the impact of the internet and technology on society, the internet is “an environment rich with knowledge and information” but, because of its open structure, good and evil reside side by side and this is “merely a click away”.

For department of basic education spokesman Granville Whittle the responsibility of ensuring a child’s safety on the internet lies with learners who have a responsibility to manage their own behaviour; parents and guardians who should monitor the use of technology both in the home and outside of it; society, which also has a responsibility (and there is legislation in place to protect children from potential risks); and teachers, who have a responsibility to ensure that they are familiar with the range of technologies available so that they can educate learners about them and also use them in their teaching where appropriate. Teachers also have a pastoral responsibility in providing guidance, counselling and advice to learners who may be dealing with harassment, stalking and cyberbullying.

“Schools have a responsibility to ensure that there is an Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) in place, which is linked to, and the penalties defined by, the existing code of conduct in every public school. The local police service should be involved in the development of an AUP. There are a number of ways of monitoring the use of technology which the school needs to be familiar with,” says Whittle. The following internet issues are causes of concern:

Online harassment and bullying; inappropriate or illegal behaviour; physical danger and sexual abuse; exposure to unsuitable materials; plagiarism and copyright infringement; and obsessive use of the internet.

Whittle refers to Jace Shoemaker-Galloway’s article, The Signs and Symptoms of Electronic Bullying, which points out some of the warning signs that your child is being harassed online:

  • Being reluctant to use a computer or electronic device;
  • Avoiding discussion about what they are doing on a computer or other electronic devices;
  • Looking or appearing nervous, anxious or jumpy when receiving an email or text message;
  • Displaying unusual anger, sadness or depression after using a computer or electronic device;
  • Discussing revenge;
  • Exiting or clicking out of whatever they are doing if a person walks by;
  • Unexpectedly stopping using a computer or electronic device;
  • Having trouble sleeping or have sleep disturbances;
  • Showing a decline in school homework or grades;
  • Showing an unusual interest in self-harm or in suicide;
  • Exhibiting unusual mood swings;
  • Not feeling well: headaches, upset stomach;
  • Becoming reclusive, antisocial and losing friends.

Ramon Thomas, an independent online behaviour expert, says that “parents can ensure their children’s safety on the internet by talking to them about not giving out personal information such as names, school, city, and email addresses.” This includes making or posting plans and activities on the site or posting pictures online. “Once an image is posted anywhere on the internet (even on a profile with privacy settings), it may never be completely erased from the internet, even if it is deleted.”

Singh advises parents to be “actively involved in monitoring and controlling their children’s use of the internet as opposed to merely asking the domestic worker or a sibling to oversee a child’s use of it.

“It would be wise to also join the social networking sites your child is using and be their ‘friend’ so that you can monitor their accounts,” he says.

Furthermore, children should be free to speak to their parents or another trusted adult if they feel threatened or uncomfortable about something online, says Thomas.

He explains that the use of privacy settings can restrict who can and cannot access their internet profiles. Teach children only to accept people as friends if they know and trust them in real life. Parents can also monitor what their children’s friends are posting about their children’s identity.

Parents can also make regular checks while their children are online and at other times as well as check the history, of sites their children have visited. Children can, however, erase the history, in which event you could check the browser history which is sometimes more difficult to remove.

“If a parent does not have the time to be actively involved in his or her child’s internet activities, parents could purchase software which prevents children from visiting sites which they believe contains harmful content. These range from free applications to those that cost in excess of R500,” says Singh.

Thomas advises parents that, if their child is being harassed by a cyberbully, they should warn and block the sender of hateful messages to their children and also report the incident to their internet service provider and to school authorities and the police.

Another problem the internet poses is that of children becoming victims of child pornography. According to Advaita Govender from the Human Sciences Research Council, “the number of reported child pornography cases in South Africa is unknown because sexual offence data is not disaggregated”.

If a child has been a victim of child pornography, parents should get help from organisations such as Childline immediately, get their child to speak to a psychologist and report the offence to the police.

Parents should be aware of their child’s participation in live chat rooms. Thomas advises parents to make sure their children know that what they say in a chat room or during an instant messaging session is live and they cannot take it back or delete it later.

They should not say anything they would not want the public to know. This includes their full name, their address, phone number and other personal information. Other advice includes:

  • Don’t get together with someone you meet in a chat room. If you must, meet in a public place and bring along some friends;
  • Don’t reveal your actual location or when and where you plan to hang out;
  • Choose a nickname that’s not sexually suggestive and doesn’t give away your real name;
  • If someone says or does something creepy, block them and don’t respond; and
  • If the topic turns to sex, just sign out. That can often lead somewhere you don’t want to go.

Singh says: “Don’t allow your kids to go there! There is no way of controlling who is on the other side.”

According to Steve Vosloo, fellow for 21st-century learning, Shuttleworth Foundation, “Parents need to be involved in the digital lives of their children. It is not enough to say: ‘We’re too old to know what’s going on’ or ‘We can’t keep up.’ Parents need to ask their kids about MXit and Facebook and the internet. They need to see what MXit actually looks like instead of only relying on what the media says.”

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