Almost two thirds of children have been exposed to sexual images online and 18% have sent pictures of themselves to strangers.
One third of children in South Africa are at risk of online violence, exploitation and abuse.
This is according to the SA Kids Online Survey, which reveals the benefits and dangers of online access and behaviour among children and parents.
According to Toby Fricker, Unicef chief of communication and partnership in South Africa, the findings of the report highlight the importance of a collaborative approach to online safety and protection. This effort must involve children and young people themselves, caregivers, the technology industry, academia and government, as well as the critical need for support services for victims of online violence, exploitation and abuse, he says.
While more than 95% of children in South Africa have regular access to the internet, their risky online behaviour can expose them to online violence, exploitation and abuse, according to the survey.
The study further shows that children who experience these abuses are unlikely to share their experiences or trauma about the incident, which in turn can have a devastating long-term impact on their mental health and emotional well-being.
About two out of every 10 children surveyed have experienced unwanted sexual advances online. About 10% of children with monthly internet access sometimes experience people asking for sexual information about them.
Researchers hope the results of this survey will influence policy development and inform strategic planning and implementation of online safety and child protection initiatives in South Africa. Only 41% of the more than 2,000 children surveyed had received any information about online safety.
According to Fricker, a lack of awareness about the dangers online and access without parental consent present a risky scenario in which vulnerable children can be exposed to online violence, exploitation and abuse.
The Kids Online South Africa study revealed that almost 95.3% of children and 80.2% of parents in South Africa have access to the internet via a mobile device. Despite experiencing challenges with the cost of internet and poor network connections, 56.4% of children and 65.3% of parents use the internet daily.
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Of the children, 35% use it to discover new things while 30.4% use it for school work. The survey also found that 29.4% of child respondents use the internet to watch video clips, while 29.4% of parents primarily use the internet for social media. And 88.9% of parents use it for instant messaging while 86.6% use it learn something new.
In May this year, the Portfolio Committee on Justice was briefed by the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development (DOJCD) on the proposed Cyber Security and Cybercrime Bill a month before it was signed into law. The committee observed at the time that suicide was not a criminal offence and asked the justice department how malicious communications that led to suicide could be criminalised, as stated in the draft bill and why it could not criminalise hurtful images shown on television screens.
The committee observed that bullying could damage a person and cause spiritual and psychological harm. It questioned whether spiritual and psychological harm should be regarded as a petty crime.
According to Christine Muhigana, Unicef South Africa representative, the study reaffirms the importance of better protecting children from dangers online that can so impact on their emotional and physical well-being. “The online world for children presents many positive opportunities, from accessing educational resources to connecting with peers.”