Ask the parent of the average South African teenager what their child gets up to in the evenings, and many will tell you that their sons or daughters are probably typing away on their cellphones, on South Africa’s largest social network – MXit.
And it comes as no surprise. A recent survey conducted by UNICEF in partnership with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, MXit, and the University of Cape Town, revealed that 30 per cent of MXit users admitted to spending most of their after-school time socialising on the platform. 25,876 South African youths recently took part in the survey, which looked at how young people interact on the social media platform.
“The rise of the mobile internet in South Africa means that more people, especially youth, are using social networks as key tools in their identity formation. This timely report provides an important piece of the puzzle to understanding the formation of mobile youth cultures; and exploring the role that cellphone applications play in the lives of young South Africans,” says Dr Tanja Bosch, senior lecturer in the Centre for Film and Media Studies at the University of Cape Town.
This survey is a component of a global campaign undertaken by UNICEF to raise awareness around the optimal and safe use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), entitled the Digital Citizenship and Safety Project. The project seeks to address the impact ICTs are having on children’s experiences and how widespread ICT-access is affecting their lifestyle.
Africa is currently the world’s fastest growing market for mobile communications and access to information technology is essential for economic, social, cultural and political development in today’s world.
Mobile technology, the internet and social networks can make vital information more accessible to children and to create platforms for discussion and participation on matters that affect them, as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). UNICEF believes that ICTs have the potential to empower children and young people – particularly in the developing world – but access should be accompanied by education and regulation to ensure that children’s safety is not compromised.
Published today, the study is based on a questionnaire sent out to a portion of MXit’s over 44 million users and the first research project undertaken of the platform by UNICEF. MXit is a mobile instant messaging and social networking application that is free, and for people aged above 13, with the majority of users aged 18-25.
The UNICEF and MXit study revealed that 75% talk to strangers at least once a week while 42% do so every day. Similarly, when asked what respondents do most at home, 30% said that they chat on MXit – and 68 % indicated that they most often talk to family and friends.
However, the high frequency with which MXit users are interacting with strangers, highlights the need for parents, organisations working with children and peer-groups to engage with young people about the potential risks of the digital world and how to avoid them.
“Children are incredibly adept at figuring out new technologies. And while they may have technical knowledge, they are not always aware of some of the implications of using the technology. UNICEF is committed to ensuring that young people not only benefit from innovation, but they are safe from anyone seeking to exploit them through these platforms,” says Aida Girma, UNICEF South Africa Representative.
Social media and mobile phones have also made young people vulnerable to new means of bullying or victimisation. The survey found that 26% of those answering had been insulted or experienced some form of ‘cyber-bullying’. Race, location and gender emerged as the most common reasons for insult.
In 2010 UNICEF teamed up with MXit to create the Red Card – a free portal on child rights with safety guidelines informing young people when they are being inappropriately groomed – that has been added by over 51,000 MXit users to date. MXit is committed to ensuring the safety of its users by moderating chatrooms; creating age restrictions on content and features; making the reporting of abuse simple; and working with the authorities whenever necessary.
The study also hints at a continuing regional disparity in access to mobile internet in South Africa – around 90% of respondents identified themselves as ‘urban’. While mobile penetration in South Africa is the highest on the continent and the mobile phone is increasingly most people’s connection to the interne – the survey data suggests that youth in rural areas are not benefitting from the wealth of information and services internet access brings as much as their urban peers.