The nightmare of any parent is the possibility that their child could be approached and abused by a sexual predator. During the 1980’s the horror story of Gert van Rooyen, a paedophile, gripped the imagination of the South African public and the mystery of the six missing girls that he kidnapped has never been fully resolved. A painful reminder of that case arose in the last few weeks with the rape of a 7-year-old that occurred at a family restaurant in Pretoria. These are far from isolated incidents and sadly South Africa has a shocking record of child abuse.
Unfortunately, the digital age only increases the risks that children face from criminals like these. The internet has widened the scope for child abuse materials (such as pornographic pictures and videos) and provides a haven for people who wish to “groom”, exploit and harm children. The South African Law Reform Commission issued an extensive paper on the subject in 2010 which highlighted the tremendous increase in the trade of child abuse materials worldwide.
The reality of the modern age is that digital connectivity and social media are not going to disappear, and so parents and their children need to be aware of the dangers and take steps to avoid them. Ultimately, it is the parents who have the responsibility to protect their children from online dangers and government or industry regulation cannot take the place of parental control. Whilst this is not fool-proof it is an essential starting point and a legal necessity as the Constitution provides that children have a right to be protected from maltreatment.
Immediate steps that can be taken are the following:
1. Parents must educate themselves about the age restrictions that have been imposed on the various applications that their children would like to use. These age restrictions have been imposed with the safety of children in mind, especially regarding the type of content that they will be exposed to.
2. It is possible to put a variety of parental controls and restrictions on handheld devices such as tablets and smartphones as well as home PC’s. Parental controls may also be put on WiFi routers and computer hardware.
3. Parental monitoring settings allow adults to monitor and control the amount of time that a child spends on a device, the sites and applications that are visited and used and the people that children can chat to.
4. Parents can disable certain apps in favour of “child friendly” ones such as YouTube Kids where the content allowed can be customised and options such as the search function can be disabled. Time limits can be imposed, and videos can be blocked.
5. Web browsers such as Google have features such as “Safe Search” which can be activated to block inappropriate sites from the devices that your children use.
It is very important to remember that none of the steps provided above are 100% effective in every case and they can never be a substitute to parental involvement and discussion with children about the dangers and pitfalls of excessive digital media usage. They should also not be used in a covert way in an effort to trick children and spy on them. It is recommended that children are informed that parents have placed the restrictions on the devices and their reasons for doing so. They need to be warned of the dangers of irresponsible technology use and its consequences in an age appropriate way.
Children should also be encouraged to use strong privacy settings on their social media accounts and to be careful about “making friends” with people online if they have not met them in a social “real life” context. They should also be warned not to announce their future social plans and the venues that they intend to visit but rather, post content about events once they have already happened and there is no danger that a would-be predator can go to find them.
There is an old saying: “Forewarned is forearmed”… If parents are aware of the dangers that may lurk online, and have taken comprehensive steps against those risks, then they will have an immense advantage if one does arise.
Good resources include the following sites: