Durban - South African children aged between eight and 12 are among the most vulnerable for cyber-risks in the world, says a recent study by the World Economic Forum.

The study, which was undertaken in South Africa in partnership with the social enterprise Symphonia for South Africa and its programme Partners for Possibility, found that 62% of children in that age range have been exposed to at least one cyber risk. This places South Africa in the top 10 most at-risk countries out of the 29 countries polled.

The study polled 38 000 children in 29 countries. It measured children’s risk levels for exposure to cyber-misdeeds such as online bullying, grooming (where an adult ‘grooms’ a child over the Internet for future sexual abuse), the sharing of sexual content with and among children and video game addiction.

The study found that aside from the high level (64%) of children who have been exposed to one or more cyber risks, 55% were victims of cyber bullying and 11% have chatted with and then met online strangers in person. The study also found that 18% of children have engaged in online sexual behaviours, which includes having sexual conversations with strangers and/or searching, downloading, or distributing sexual content online.

Dr Robyn Whittaker, for Symphonia said: “Our focus has been to equip the school leadership of under-resourced schools with the skills and resources to address the social, administrative and academic challenges they face every day. For many of these schools, the risk of cyber-bullying and of online sexual abuse is but one of the many challenges they face. Others include dealing with child-headed households, abuse of all kinds and gangsterism.”

Symphonia for SA launched PfP in 2010 as a programme to partner school principals of under-resourced schools with business leaders in a year-long programme of leadership development and support. 

According to Dr Yuhyun Park, the founder of the DQ Institute, the “risky pair” of social media and mobile phone use among young children have placed millions of children at risk of cyber misdeeds from cyber bullies and sexual predators. The institute has found that children from developing countries, especially countries with emerging IT sectors and widespread cellphone use, are most at risk and hence most in need of support.

Says Whittaker: “Children in under-resourced schools, of which there are approximately 20 000 in South Africa, are vulnerable to all types of physical and digital abuse. It is every South African citizen’s responsibility to help keep our children safe.”

The Independent on Saturday