Safeguarding our online children

In case you haven’t heard, the online suicide game, which may have been responsible for over 130 teen deaths globally so far, is now causing concern in South Africa.

The Blue Whale game is shrouded in mystery. Some claim it’s an app, but many believe it’s simply based on an agreement between a person, usually a teenager, and an administrator who assigns increasingly sinister daily tasks to the person eventually culminating in task 50: suicide. In essence, it’s a particularly ominous and structured form of online bullying with the most tragic of outcomes. While we’ve yet to hear of actual deaths in South Africa due to Blue Whale, the news furor surrounding the game should act as a timely reminder to parents and educators that young people are highly susceptible to online abuse. We are currently observing Child Protection Week in South Africa. It’s a week intended to ‘up the ante’ when it comes to both the awareness and proactive participation in the safety of our children. One area where many parents and educators remain woefully ignorant is that of cyber-bullying.

 Cyberbullying happens when technology, in the form of the internet, emails, text or instant messaging and social media are used to humiliate, threaten or humiliate. The reason cyberbullying is so dangerous is that technology allows cyberbullies to remain anonymous, while simultaneously enabling them to have almost unlimited access to their victim and reach to their audience. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) says that cyberbullying is a growing issue in South Africa with a global study by YouGov reporting that 24% of teens in South Africa had experienced online bullying in some form. This surpasses the global average (18%) and places South Africa fourth highest in the world. Why is the South African average so high? Online behaviour reflects real life society.

We live in a particularly aggressive nation where violence of all forms, but especially gender-based violence is among the worst in the world. While our online attitudes and behaviours are certainly a reflection of our societal norms, very often online, behind the protection of a screen, it is as if the gloves are off, so to speak, and the very worst of people emerges. Apply this to cyberbullying and you can understand just how damaging this form of harassment can become and why it is especially virulent in the South African context. The one silver lining in this situation is that there is actually plenty that educators and parents can do to protect their children and teenagers.

First off, we need to teach our children to treat everyone with respect, especially their peers and specifically including those who appear weak or marginal. The very basic filter of “Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?” is a very useful tool before sharing communications.

 Secondly, as parents we need to be able to spot the warning signs: is your child sad, angry or distressed during or after using technology? Are they secretive about computer or phone use? Are they withdrawing from activities they previously enjoyed? Are they avoiding certain people? Have their appetite or sleep patterns changed?

Thirdly, we need to both protect our children and teach them how to protect themselves at the most practical levels. A child’s technology use should be monitored. Set up filters, block inappropriate content, have a rule that social media is only allowed if your child is willing to share their passwords with you. Teach them the basics; never post personal information online, never, ever share anything you wouldn’t mind the world seeing, do not retaliate, save evidence of any bullying that occurs, block communication with cyberbullies, and, most importantly, maintain an open dialogue with a trusted adult about such things, whether they themselves are the victim, or someone else.

Finally, every school should have a social media policy that, at the very least, promises serious consequences to learners found guilty of using hate speech or cyberbullying. The stark reality is that there will always be dangers facing our children, the rise of cyberbullying is simply the latest. We have a responsibility and an opportunity as adults to keep them safe. Let’s ensure we know enough to do so. Eric Motau is South Africa’s Country Director of REPSSI (Regional Psychosocial Support Initiative).

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