Social media, the dangers and the law

The world of social media can hold many dangers for naïve children as well as legal implications. Here’s what you need to know to protect your child.
By Diana Schwarz

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Would you drop off your child at the park and leave them unattended for a few hours? Most parents would answer “no”, so why do we allow our children on social media and online spaces without monitoring their activity?
As a mother of 5- and 8-year-old children, I know that every parent wants to protect their children from any harm. However, there seems to be a big absence of informed parenting in the digital age, or simple ignorance, in South African homes with regard to the effects of social media, the dangers facing children on social media and the law.
The internet has a wealth of knowledge and benefits for education, socialisation and connectivity. It is a great tool for children if used in a safe and positive way, however, as with anything in life, there are also dangers that parents and children need to be aware of.
Most parents do not know even know what cyberbullying, sexting, online grooming, cyberstalking or catfishing is! Children are not monitored online, are not taught online safety and are gifted by parents with the latest smart devices and mobile phones, then left to explore the internet and social media at their leisure. The result, of course, is high exposure to inappropriate and violent content online, vulnerability or risk of social media offences being committed against children, and children committing social media offences. To a large extent, most adults are ignorant of the legal implications of their own actions on social media. Statistics and experience have shown that 95% of parents are completely in the dark regarding the social media dangers facing their children, the age limits of the various platforms, the legal implications of their children’s actions on social media and online safety.
Children and parents are often unaware that children can be held legally liable for their actions. The law defines a child as “a person under the age of 18 years old”.
In South Africa, children from the age of 7 can be sued in the name of their parent or legal guardian, while children aged 11–18 can be sued in their own name with the assistance of a parent or guardian and are deemed to be legally liable for their actions; they can be sued civilly or charged criminally.
Children from 11 years up to 14 years of age have criminal capacity and the onus to prove criminal capacity on the part of the child accused of having committed a crime, rests with the State. Children older than 14 years have criminal capacity unless otherwise proven by the accused child.
The age for users to create accounts on most social media platforms is generally 13 years old. This includes Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp etc. Some platforms require the consent of parents/guardians.
Danger lurks in cyberspace
Below are some of the most important dangers facing children on social media.
  • Their personal information (names, schools they attend, birthdays etc.) is made known to strangers. This can be used to gain access to children.
  • Catfishing: Fake online profiles can trick children into thinking they are talking to children of their own age and child predators can gain access to victims.
  • Cyberbullying: Bullying that takes place online and on social media platforms through electronic devices. There are some alarming statistics of child suicides directly linked to cyberbullying and rising from as young as 9 years old.
  • Cyberstalking: Online harassment and stalking across social media platforms.
  • Online grooming: Adult/child predators using fake profiles or even their own profiles to form relationships with children over a long period of time for the purposes of later having a sexual relationship with the child or abducting the child.
  • Sexting: Any naked or nude pictures of a child (a person under the age of 18) is child pornography. Keeping and sending naked pictures is deemed as being in possession of and distributing child pornography (a criminal offence).
  • Kidnappings/abductions: These can occur through catfishing, online grooming, and personal information being made known online.
  • Human trafficking: Almost every situation of human trafficking can be linked to some element of social media.
Schools all over South Africa are dealing with a high rate of cyberbullying both on and off the school grounds. Schools need to have proper social media policies in place to deal with all aspects of social media, use of devices or mobile phones and disciplinary action for social media offences, among others.
Parenting in the digital age or the fourth industrial revolution can be a daunting task. The internet and social media is not going anywhere, so parents need to ramp up their skills to navigate this new digital era.
5 top tips to keep your children safe online
  1. Know what social media platforms your child is active on and what games your child is playing online.
  2. Be aware of age restrictions and read the T & Cs of each social media platform. Age restrictions are in place for a reason. Children need a certain level of emotional maturity to process the content they are exposed to.
  3. Ensure privacy settings are secure on each platform your child is on, and make sure you know how to install them.
  4. Install parental control software on all devices. There are free apps that can help you filter inappropriate content, monitor your child’s activity online and set time limits.
  5. Ensure that screen time is limited, this includes TV, all devices and gaming. Psychologists’ research shows that two hours per day is the appropriate amount of screen time daily.
Diana Schwarz is a social media lawyer and child’s rights activist. She provides social media educational talks to learners and parents at schools.

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