South Africa has one of the highest rates of cyberbullying of children, and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is now developing technology to help curb this harassment.

Majority of parents in South Africa know a child victimised in the digital space

CSIR researcher Rofhiwa Netshiya said the tech was being developed on the council’s EduCyber platform, which was already up and running in government departments and some large corporations, to prevent cybersecurity threats. The CSIR recently updated reporters on the latest developments at its Information and Cyber Security Centre, with a focus on the social aspects of cyberbullying.

According to the Global Advisor Cyberbullying Study, more than 54% of South African parents knew of a child experiencing cyberbullying in 2018. This was substantially larger than the average of 33% of the 28 countries that participated in the survey. And senior CSIR researcher Sipho Ngobeni said the situation was not improving.

“In essence we can show that (cyberbullying) is very real and data shows that it is continuing to happen and is increasing,” he said.

According to the CSIR, most cyberbullying victims in South Africa are children. It is also prevalent amongst teenagers, who also fall into the biggest group of perpetrators. The CSIR research shows that 61% of cyberbullying relates to the appearance of the victim, followed by academic achievement or intelligence at 25%. Race accounts for 17% of bullying, followed by financial status at 15%, sexuality at 15% and religion at 11%.

Most victims are harassed on Instagram at 42%, followed by Facebook at 37%, Snapchat at 31% and WhatsApp at 12%. The researchers said a key concern in South Africa was that parents expected teachers to deal with the harassment of their children. Also, many of them were unaware that their children had social media accounts
because often children without smartphones, used their friends’ phones to set up accounts.

“Parents especially feel they have more problems to deal with in society. Parents claim schools should be covering it in class. Educators don’t know when and how to intervene in online behaviours that occur away from school, but still involve their students,” Ngobeni said.

“Also, law enforcement (is) hesitant to get involved, unless there is clear evidence.” Rofhiwa said it was critical that a parent or a trustworthy adult worked with a child being bullied to arrive at a mutually agreed course of action, and “not dictate what needs to happen”.

While cyberbullying is under-reported, some incidents have made headlines in the country. In April this year, a Grade 10 Limpopo pupil committed suicide after a video of her being bullied by fellow pupils went viral. A 13-year-old Gauteng pupil took her life after a naked photograph of her was distributed at her school via WhatsApp.

Ngobeni said that while there were laws protecting people surfing the web, it was often impossible to remove slanderous, embarrassing and hostile content.

“The Film and Publications Act… says a person can lodge a complaint at the Film and Publications Board and they have the prerogative to investigate the matter. (But) once it gets out there, it’s really difficult to take down that content… because it has crossed various jurisdictions,” he explained.

Perpetrators can be charged with defamation, for example for posting lies about someone on social media, and with crimen injuria for injuring the dignity of a victim. They can also face charges for sexual exploitation and grooming.
However, a court case is more likely to be successful if the victim has evidence of cyberbullying.

Rofhiwa said there were a number of measures parents could take to protect their children. They included installing internet monitoring software that tracked sites visited, downloads, chat room conversations and instant messaging.
Ngobeni told 4IRSA that EduCyber was a web-based platform designed to assist organisations to educate their employees on cybersecurity awareness.

“It is designed to equip users on how to identify cybersecurity and related threats and protect themselves when surfing the Internet. The main key features of EduCyber is seamless integration with existing authentication technologies, pre-assessment, online awareness training, post-assessment, simulated phishing attack, analytics
and reporting, collaborative learning, and gamification,” he explained.

On the AI being developed for cyberbullying, he said the feature was still under development and the CSIR intended to add it on the collaborative feature of EduCyber.

“This feature will allow… real time synchronous discussion through the chat feature to enable collaborative learning among themselves.

“It will, however, be disabled during pre- and post-assessments. The purpose of this feature is to detect and stop cyberbullying activities happening on the chat feature of the platform,” Ngobeni said.

He said that while there were many learning management systems for chatrooms, the CSIR was unaware of any that “can detect and stop cyberbullying on the chat feature”.

By: Amy Musgrave