How Google and its partners are making the web safer for SA kids

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Google South Africa recently launched an initiative to co-ordinate the efforts of government, industry and civil society to make the internet a safer place for children in South Africa. The launch coincided with Child Protection Week and International Children’s Day on 1 June. It was applauded by a range of stakeholders, including the Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities; the Department of Communications; the Film and Publications Board and Childline SA.

As well as the co-ordination effort, the search giant also launched the South African version of its Family Safety Centre which is available in English, Afrikaans and isiZulu. This contains advice for parents, children and caregivers from Google and local partners such as Parent’s Corner; videos; and guidelines on reporting inappropriate content in the Google universe: Google+, YouTube and Blogger. In addition it contains an overview of Google’s child safety tools: SafeSearch for PCs and mobile; SafeSearch Lock; YouTube Safety Mode; and the ability to prevent applications being downloaded from Google Play according to the app’s maturity rating. Google also allows parents to set up an admin function on their child’s Blogger account in order to monitor and filter inappropriate content.

The site is mobile-enabled and employs assistive technology for visually impaired users. According to Fortune Mgwili-Sibanda, Google’s policy and government relations manager, Google is in talks with Mxit to include the content on its platform as well in order to reach a wider mobile audience.

“South Africans are increasingly using the internet, especially on their mobile phones. While extensive effort has been put into protecting children online in other countries, not much work has been done in South Africa or the region,” said Luke Mckend, Google SA country manager. These sentiments were echoed by the Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities, Lulu Xingwana, who said that new initiatives by government, the private sector and civil society were required to help protect children online.

Access to adult or illegal content, cyberbullying and sexual grooming were highlighted as some of the main dangers South African children face online. “Children always face risk and we need to mitigate this and unintended consequences,” said Mgwili-Sibanda.

The minister said that children should be encouraged to explore and take advantage of the online world as this is key to allowing South Africa to keep pace and develop. But “allowing children the space to grow does not mean parents should be completely hands off.” Childline South Africa’s training and advocacy manager, Joan van Niekerk concurred, saying: “The family is the first system when it comes to protecting the child.”

The Film and Publications Board’s announcement of the 16-year-old age restriction on Brett Murray’s The Spear painting just prior to the launch and held in the same building, throws into stark relief the challenges that digital, especially mobile, technology poses. The FPB’s CEO, Yoliswa Makhasi speaking at the launch, said it is tricky to manage content, especially user-generated content which has gone viral. When it comes to mobile devices “the likely exposure to inappropriate content is high because the parent is not there to monitor or apply values or a safety mechanism.”

Other partners involved with the launch were: Media Monitoring Africa, Mxit, the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fud, Parent’s Corner and Unicef. Lilian George, a 76-year-old graduate of Rlabs adult training programme, shared her experience as a “silver surfer” and encouraged parents and grandparents not to be intimidated by technology, to go online and learn.

Friday’s launch was the first stage of a two-part programme. Next steps include an education and public advocacy campaign comprising workshops for parents, guardians and children as well as the development of an online safety curriculum. The Department of Education is expected to be involved at this stage as well as Unicef’s education network.

This initiative is certainly an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to making the internet a safer place for South African children and empowering parents to protect their children. All involved were singing from the same songsheet: digital and mobile technology is here to stay; it offers many advantages including education, information, entertainment and social; banning is not an option as it will push technology use underground and stop parents from monitoring and protection their children.

The consensus was that children should be equipped to compete on a world stage through digital technology, but also be kept safe. “The online and offline world is not mutually exclusive,” said Google’s Mgwili-Sibanda. And as @ChildlineGP tweeted: “Cyberspace is new playground for children, let them play but check on them as you would in real life.”

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