COMMENT: The Internet: A double-edged sword for children and teens – balancing benefits and risks

WHILE the internet offers a vast array of benefits for children and teens, including access to a wide range of games, videos, and interactive experiences and opportunities for creative expression through social media, online communities, and digital art, it’s important to acknowledge that it also presents deadly risks.

These include exposure to inappropriate content or harmful individuals, cyberbullying and online harassment as well as addiction to online activities and neglecting other aspects of life.

The impact of technology, especially on children, becomes increasingly difficult to gauge as the pace of technological innovation speeds up.

Children can be targeted by peers or strangers online. According to Unicef cyberbullying and other forms of peer-to-peer violence can affect young people each time they log in to social media or instant messaging platforms.

Most alarming is the threat of online sexual exploitation and abuse. Children may be victimized through the production, distribution and consumption of sexual abuse material, or they may be groomed for sexual exploitation, with abusers attempting to meet them in person or exhort them for explicit content.

A case in point is that of convicted South African murderer and rapist Thabo Bester, dubbed the “Facebook Rapist”. Bester lured victims by posing as a modelling agency representative on social media, targeting individuals interested in pursuing modelling careers.

It is important to note that children who have been sexually exploited online prefer not 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.

When browsing the internet, children may also be exposed to hate speech and violent content including misinformation and disinformation about reproductive health care, especially abortion, which is on the rise on social media platforms.

In this edition, we carried a story where abortion pills are being sold to children on Facebook. Our reporters went undercover in a week-long investigation that started with making contacts on the Facebook page that advertises the so-called ‘legal abortions’ in the country.

This calls for the need by parents to check multiple devices, including their children’s computer, tablet, phone, or any device that has an internet connection.

Parents should also look at the history to see what sites they’ve visited and check the games and apps they’re using.

It’s also crucial to note that the internet’s impact on children varies depending on individual factors, family dynamics, and socioeconomic background. 

Additionally, emphasizing the positive aspects of the internet and encouraging mindful use can help children leverage its benefits while minimising potential harm.

Keeping children safe online also relies on parents and caregivers to maintain open communication; to use technology to protect children; to spend time with them online; encourage healthy online habits; and let children have fun and express themselves.

There is a need for parents to foster a balanced and responsible approach that can help children and teens enjoy the many benefits the internet offers while minimising the potential risks.

Parents may consider using free apps from Google play store, like Family Link, to monitor and restrict what their children do online.



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