As we observe Child Protection Week in South Africa — creating awareness and proactive participation in the safety of our children — we cannot ignore cyberbullying.
It's "one area where many parents and educators remain woefully ignorant", wrote Eric Motau, the director of the Regional Psychosocial Support Initiative, to HuffPost.
According to a study by YouGov in 2015, 24 percent of South African teens had experienced online bullying in some form and 84 percent knew someone who has been bullied online. According to some research done by Alister Payne, a Cape Town teacher and specialist researcher in cyberbullying, learners in Grade 6 and 7 were the most vulnerable, with the greatest frequency of victimisation happening among 12- and 13-year-olds.
And if news reports in recent years of cyberbullying allegedly leading to successful and unsuccessful suicide attempts are anything to go by, then it's clear cyberbullying is becoming a serious problem.
Parents or guardians can be proactive in ensuring both that their children are protected online, and that they know what to do should they encounter cyberbullies.
Here are four ways to do this:
1. Talk about it
Talking about it openly will assure your children that you know what cyberbullying is, and will likely encourage them to be open about it to you, should they experience it.
"You need to have the conversation with them. They need to understand that when they see inappropriate content, content that makes them feel uncomfortable, whether they're being harassed or they're being bullied ... they can come to you and speak to you," author and social media law expert Emma Sadleir previously told HuffPost.
Parents also have the ability through conversation to teach their kids what's funny and what's cruel online, so their children don't become bullies in turn. "We find that children don't always think about the consequences of their actions; they get caught up in the moment, create a post and the next thing they know it's become viral," said Heather Hansen from Teenworx.
2. Get involved
Know which social networks your kids use, and if necessary, follow them on social media and conduct occasional spot checks. If you're not particularly tech-savvy, learn the basics of how that social media platform works.
"If your child is using Snapchat, and they're on it three hours a day, and you have no idea how Snapchat works, that's an incredibly dangerous position to be in, because you cannot keep your child safe unless you yourself know how these platforms work," said Sadleir.
It's easier to warn them about the dangers of something you understand. Also teach them the basics of online behaviour, for example, the fact that they should never share anything they wouldn't want the world seeing, that public digital content is permanent, and to save any evidence of bullying that does occur.
3. Set limits
Be wary of giving your kids limitless access to internet-accessible devices or leaving them unsupervised for long periods of time. When you do give them a smartphone, talk about your expectations for their behaviour and actions. You have the right as a parent to give them technological devices on condition that you're able to access the devices at any time, especially when they are younger.
"I see nine-year-olds who get an iPhone and they are allowed them 24 hours a day. I think that's negligent," observed Sadleir, who believes that some South Africans are giving their children smartphones at too young an age.
4. Spot the signs
According to the Cyberbullying Research Centre, there are signs you can look out for to determine that your child may be a target of cyberbullying. If he or she unexpectedly stops using their device, appears nervous or jumpy when using their phone, appears uneasy about going to school or outside in general, appears to be angry, depressed, or frustrated after going online, becomes abnormally withdrawn from usual friends and family member, loses interest in the things that mattered most to them, avoids discussions about what they are doing online, frequently calls or texts from school requesting to go home ill, desires to spend much more time with parents rather than peers and becomes unusually secretive, especially when it comes to online activities, they may be being cyberbullied.
Here are places that can help:
- Childline's counsellors are available on 08000 55 555, toll-free.
- The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag)'s 24-hour helpline is 0800 12 13 14.
- The South African Police Service (SAPS) — depending on the seriousness of the incident, report it at your nearest police station.