Tricia (not her real name) is only 11 but can list some of the dangers posed by internet use, confirming that the dark forces that lurk on the cyberspace are well known even among the youngsters.
The girl, a pupil at a primary school on Ngong Road, Nairobi, narrated a harrowing ordeal that her schoolmate recently underwent in the hands of a cyber bully. Her story is a poignant reminder of the utter vulnerability of children as they browse the Internet.
*Amanda, Tricia’s friend, who at 12 years has access to a phone and unlimited internet access, was locked out of her Instagram account some time last year. Unaware to Amanda, the ghost cyber bully engaged her followers, some of them her schoolmates, tarnishing her reputation in the process and ruining friendships she had taken time to build.
This marked the beginning of a painful experience that pushed her to the brink of suicide. Friends gave her a wide berth, as jeers directed at her became louder over the following weeks. Amanda grew sad and lonely, with thoughts of suicide lingering on her mind.
She would later learn that a “ghost” (cyber bully) had taken over her account and had a field day creating havoc. The cybercriminal had also tried to lure her friends out of school for a meeting. Luckily none had fallen victim by the time her teacher intervened.
Amanda’s story came up during a session on cybercrime organised by Unicef in March this year. It emerged that most of the about 20 pupils who participated in the survey frequently engaged with strangers online, an indicator that the dangers on the cyber space continue to grow.
With unlimited internet available especially in urban homes, most of the students confirmed that they are always on the internet watching videos, playing games and engaging “friends” on social media.
That pupils are now more often required to go online to do some of their assignments means they spend a lot of time online, getting exposed to the mounting dangers.
While the enactment of the Computer Misuse and Cybercrime Act 2018 — which deals with offences ranging from publication of fake news, pornography, cyberterrorism, cybersquatting and child pornography— was enacted by President Uhuru Kenyatta in May little has been done by authorities especially in the cyber space to protect children. More continue to fall victim to the dark side of the internet as various reports indicate.
Safe Online Safe Onland, a report published early last year by the Internet Society (ISOC), shows that children continue to have access to inappropriate contents and are being exposed to “hazards like meeting online friends which may result into sexual harassment or even kidnappings and other crimes.”
Most of the phones used by children, the report found, have simcards registered in the name of their parents, caregivers and friends, indicating that adults inadvertently enable unsupervised internet access by children. This is mainly the case because they are oblivious to the dangers that it poses.
“The children have been left to themselves and exposed to all types of cyber-bullying and inappropriate online contents without due measures being taken to safeguard their wellbeing and nurturing,” the report said. The survey also found that a lot of precious time is being used by kids on chatting or watching videos and listening to music online at the expense of academics and other meaningful activities that would enrich their lives.
So what is the remedy?
The report recommended that parents and caretakers of children be sensitised on how to monitor the content the youngsters are “accessing and their potential to harm, especially through cyber bullying.”
Faith Manyala, Unicef child protection officer, advised parents to only allow their children a limited time online on devices that have accounts with limited apps and permissions.
In a survey last year, the American Heart Association recommended not more than two hours of screen time daily for children aged between eight and 18. For younger ones, aged between two to five years, they recommended at most one hour of screen time per 24 hours.
“If you share a device with your children consider setting up a separate account or accounts. Each account will have its own home screen and, depending on the device and platform, a different selection of features, apps, and permissions,” said Ms Manyala. “This helps you to protect your own data or video recommendations. It also allows you to set up customised security and privacy settings for each child.”
She also recommends that parents hold regular talks with children on the online dangers and encourage them to report any suspicious activity or experiences they come across.
“Just like any other life lesson, clear and simple communication is key with young children, and the earlier you begin this process the better. Keep your conversations short but regular.”
Paul Osundwe, a child protection officer at the Directorate of Criminal Investigations, warned parents on the increasing cases of child sexual exploitation and online bullying. He says caregivers should lodge complaints with the newly launched department to stem the practice.
“Blocking bullies is never a long-lasting solution. We encourage people to report these cases to enable the authority to deal with them for good.”