CHILD PROTECTION WEEK: 29 May – 5 June 2022

Life online – the dangers of limitless and limited access #ChildProtectionWeek

Its Child Protection Week in South Africa and the government has called on all to “protect children during Covid-19 and beyond”. The South African Communications Forum (SACF) supports this call and would like to draw attention to the impact and dangers of both limitless and limited access to the internet for our country’s children.

One thing that Covid-19 has shown us is that the world is now online.

In 2020, in a matter of days, South Africa had to ready itself as work, learning, and socialising moved online for a hard lockdown in SA’s tactical move to manage the global pandemic. As part of its defense, government allocated mobile operators temporary spectrum for 5G technology to accommodate the load associated with the massive confinement of South Africans to their homes.

It’s two years later and this initial tactical move has morphed into a way of life, and children who tend to be early adopters of everything; have gravitated to this new culture. Hybrid learning continues and social interaction, gaming, and shopping are now done virtually.

The challenge in a country like South Africa is that we have children with limitless access and those with limited access. In both cases, there is an ever-present danger.

For children with limitless access, issues range from questionable content such as disturbing images and graphic sexual content; to cyberbullying and harassment. Then there’s sharing of personal information which enables online predators to lure children into harmful situations.

“Parents need to be extra vigilant, and the usual parenting strategies have to change to accommodate this post-pandemic way of life,” says SACF MD, Katharina Pillay. “It’s easy to fall into a false sense of safety because your child is at a home – a few feet away from you. But the danger of the internet is real and present”.

According to Pillay, the following are warning signs that a child is being targeted by an online predator:

  • Spending long hours online, especially at night.
  • Phone calls from people you don't know.
  • Unsolicited gifts appearing.
  • Your child suddenly turning off the computer when you walk into the room.
  • Withdrawal from family life and reluctance to discuss online activities

The Internet is an excellent tool when used safely and appropriately. The International Telecommunications Union has determined access to the internet a human right; expressing the notion that – for children – limited or no access to the internet is akin to refusing learners textbooks.

In South Africa the dangers for those with limited or no access to the internet have also been highlighted during COVID.

“As schools scrambled to offer schoolwork packages online, several learners we literally ‘locked-out’ of virtual classes.” says Pillay. “In a society with high unemployment rates, significant social grant dependency, and rampant poverty; data purchases are not a priority. While significant efforts have been made to buffer vulnerable households – and the learners in those households, the pandemic has had many adverse effects. Several parents are reeling from having to manage and recover from the economic fallout while coping with the impact of the disruption to their children’s routines and having to play catch up on the many missed hours of learning.”

It is a well-known fact that one of the biggest factors to internet access is the cost.

Government policy and a regulatory environment that enables investment and accelerates innovation are vital to combating this. Government must ensure direct stimulus funds for digital development; support the financial sustainability of the ICT sector; remove barriers to network deployment and ensure fair competition.

The recent licensing of the high-demand spectrum will go a long way toward assisting. Together government and industry need to ensure that the ICT innovation lifecycle is reduced and that the current spectrum opportunity boosts the creation of products or services that meet end-user – and all children’s – needs safely, optimally, and more cost-effectively. By doing this South Africa can ensure optimal use of the internet, while keeping citizens – especially our children safe, ensuring that no child will be “left-behind”.


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