Teachers and Schools Governing Bodies (SGBs) must take decisive actions to protect our adolescents’ from the negative impact of social media and other modern forms of communication. To simply punish adolescents who are found guilty of “sexting” – the sending of a photograph of yourself naked or semi-naked or taking an explicit images of an adult or teacher using electronic means – is not a solution.
Our young people are facing real threats in an ever-changing internet age. Parents and schools already educate our children about the dangers of drugs, alcohol and sex. The time has come for us to do the same concerning the dangers of social media especially sexting.
This week the sexting scourge reared its ugly head when photographs of 20 Pretoria schoolboys went viral after being posted on a fake Twitter account. Cyber forensic specialists also revealed that they had recently dealt with a case in which more than 200 Johannesburg Grade 11 pupils were sending or receiving images of themselves and classmates naked.
The world as we knew it has changed dramatically; today adolescents are exposed to reality television, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, MXit, SMS and Instant Messaging amongst other forms of new media. The use of these medium of communication has unintended consequences of unwittingly bringing harm to the user.
Even adults stumble when it comes to the unthoughtful use of social media, with quite a number having been fired from both local and international companies due to impulsive tweeting recently.
A study by United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) South Africa found “substantial” evidence that a majority of young people are indeed aware of the risks they face online, which has allowed them to develop protective measures of their own. However, a large percentage of young people are not au fait with the damaging impact sexting can have on their lives.
The damage done to these adolescents is inconceivable. Research has shown that while the pictures are often initially posted with the consent of the subject, once these pictures go viral online, the adolescents are within hours exposed to millions of viewers, leaving them in immense distress, embarrassed, humiliated and deeply ashamed, even to the point of committing suicide.
Adolescents experiment and explore, albeit in a different fashion than a generation ago when social media was unheard of. As teachers and SGBs we need to find a way to educate them about the Constitution, responsible use of social media, their own and others’ right to privacy, the harm that can befall themselves and their counterparts. The simple message we need spread is that it is in fact illegal to produce and share "any image, however created, or any description or representation of a person, real or simulated, who is depicted, made to appear, look like, represented or described or presented as being under the age of 18 years of an explicit or sexual nature, whether such image or description or presentation is intended to stimulate erotic or aesthetic feelings or not” as stated in the Films and Publications Act (FPAct) and the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act (SOAct).
Without this information and in the absence of any legislation dealing directly with sexting between adolescents, they are easy prey to the dangers of new media.
Pupils found guilty of sexting should be punished but not expelled from schools based on their lapse in behaviour by using social media irresponsible. This will simply destroy their future. Most are oblivious to the bill of rights in the constitution that spells out the parameters of our rights within a constitutional democracy.
Studies done by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention (CJCP) and the Youth Research Unit of the Bureau of Market Research at the University of South Africa (UNISA) revealed that:
· 46.8% of young people between ages 12 – 24 years had experienced some form of cyber bullying;
· 69.7% of respondents (as above) who admitted to have bullied others, have themselves been bullied;
· 21.46% of high school pupils had been approached with ‘unwanted talk about sex’;
· 17.79% said they had received e-mails or instant messages with advertisements or links to ‘X-rated’ websites;;
· 16.95% had opened messages or links with pictures of naked people or people having sex;
· 16.60% had been asked for sexual information about themselves;
· 14.27% were worried or felt threatened by online harassment;
· 9.90% said they had been asked to ‘do something sexual’; and
· male adolescents were more likely to engage in unsafe online activities.
These statistics make it clear that adolescents must be taught to protect themselves. To say NO to sharing, copying or downloading sexually explicit images no matter who asks them and despite peer pressure. Without guidance these children are unable to fully comprehend the full negative impact of their actions.
Motshekga is the Minister of Basic Education