By Candes Keating and Murray Williams

Schools are calling for tough new rules to curb the use of a cellphone instant messaging service that is becoming an obsession affecting pupils' work.

And one school has already a support group for pupils who are addicted to the service, designed by a South African and called "Mxit".

Another worry is that this is permitting children to get easy access to sex chatrooms and porn.

The Film and Publications Board says it is investigating the use of Mxit at schools across the country.

Early findings indicate that in the Western Cape, exposure to porn on cellphones is worse than on the internet.

Principals and teachers have reported that pupils "addicted" to Mxit no longer pay attention in class.

The spokesperson for the Western Cape education department, Gert Witbooi, said principals were also blaming Mxit for poor performance among Grade 10s.

"We have reports that learners are constantly glued to their phones," he said.

Recent reports have also demonstrated how children can now use cellphones to access hard-core porn with ease.

With Mxit, users can send messages for as little as 2c after they register for the service on the Mxit website.

Users can send messages to people they know or "talk" to strangers in chatrooms.

Designed by Herman Heunis, Mxit already claims 1.35 million users and has reported 3 million visitors a day to its website.

Regarding porn access, FPB communications manager Modjaji Makoela said: "More than 80 percent of learners are accessing adult material on their cellphones. Mxit is dangerous."

Immaculata High principal Kubeshini Govender, where pupils addicted to Mxit are getting support, said: "Mxit is a drug. The learners become dependent on it."

Some chatted all night and were tired in class the next day. Others spent most of the day on Mxit.

"I have had all sorts of reports on Mxit. One learner was hooked on sexual chatrooms. It destroyed her self-esteem," Govender said.

Western Cape Education MEC Cameron Dugmore praised the school on Wednesday.

"More research is needed on this phenomenon. There is no national or provincial policy - normally, individual schools would determine their own codes of conduct," he explained. "But the time has come for us to now give very clear direction on this."

Govender said the school had implemented "various strategies to overcome addiction" to Mxit.

This included discussions and writing essays about their personal experiences on Mxit.

She also "baby-sits" cellphones for pupils who have handed them to her voluntarily.

Parents had to take responsibility when they bought their children cellphones, she said.

"Cellphones are a tool and if you buy them one, you are opening them to external influences.

"It opens them to abuse."

A pupil at the school, who does not want to be named, said: "I was on Mxit all day, even in class. I was very addicted. It's like a drug."

The Grade 11 pupil, who has been off Mxit for two months, said she had had sexually explicit conversations with older males she had met in chatrooms on Mxit.

"I gave into peer pressure and did things I'm not proud of. I degraded myself," she said.

She stopped when her mother found out about the messages.

But sharing her experiences with others at school has helped her stay away from Mxit.

Charlton Cowlan, a Grade 11 pupil at Modderdam High, stopped doing his homework because he spent most of his day on Mxit.

Nicholas Abrahams, a matric pupil at Windsor High who was also addicted to Mxit, described it as a "huge dating service".

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