Texting and Sexting: Keep your Chats Safe

Wednesday, 20 May, 2009 - 12:14

It is hard enough for girls and women to deal with harassment and abuse in our every day physical spaces – of work, school, home - but what about when it happens in virtual spaces? How do we control what happens in cyberspace? Girls’Net recognises these challenges and has launched the "Keep your chats exactly that!" campaign to address violence against girls in online spaces

At some point in our childhood or adulthood for that matter, we may have experienced some kind of bullying or harassment or violence or we know of someone who has survived these and other types of violence. Through campaigns like the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence and the work of organisations in the violence against women sector, many of us know what our rights are and where to go for help. But what happens when this violence happens in cyberspace? Do we know enough to protect ourselves from harm? Do girls and young women know of the potential dangers in online spaces?

Providing people with another way of staying in touch, interacting with each other and even meeting new people, social networking websites and other platforms have taken the world by storm. According to Wikipedia, a social network is a social structure made up generally of individuals or organisations that are tied by one or more specific types of interdependency.

Today we have hundreds of social network websites; Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Bebo and LinkedIn to name but a few. These are the spaces where many young people find themselves most comfortable - socialising and interacting with their peers. Social networking has also extended to cellphones - the most popular platforms being MXit and MYMsta, an initiative by loveLife. Young people use their cellphones to access the internet, chat, download music and games and pictures and for video sharing. According to Opera Software’s “State of the Mobile Web” report, mobile social networking consumes more than 60% of mobile web traffic in South Africa. MXit is the most popular.

MXit is a free mobile instant messaging service that provides low cost text based communication to mobile users. It has an astounding 11 million registered users and processes 250 million messages a day. Most of the users are between the ages of 15 and 25 years old and more than half are young men (Source: MXit website) . Chatting on MXit costs less than 2 cents to send a message – making it extremely cheap to communicate.

While social networking using cellphones appears ideal for staying in contact and meeting people online, there are dangers. In an article published in the KwaZulu-Natal newspaper, The Mercury, a parent from Phoenix in Durban reported that he had found his daughter with her bags at the Durban bus station heading for Johannesburg, where she was to meet a man she had befriended on MXit. In another incident also reported by The Mercury, a Johannesburg teenager was allegedly abducted by a 33-year-old man she met through the cellphone chat facility. The girl was kept in the man's Randfontein house for five days before police tracked him down.

In an attempt to address these challenges, Girls’Net the daughter project of Women’sNet, launched the "Keep Your Chats Exactly That!" campaign on 15 May 2009, at their offices in Johannesburg.

The campaign aims to prevent young people from becoming victims of violence or harassment when they use the internet and/or their cellphones. ‘Keep your chats exactly that!’ raises awareness, disseminates information and promotes the use of the information and communication technology (ICT) – including the internet and cellphones - tools for positive social participation.

In the research process leading up to the campaign launch, Girls’Net conducted focus group discussions with young people to investigate their use of social networks. Girls reported withdrawing from mobile social networks because of sexual harassment.

The research found that there is an increased need for young people to access, use and own spaces and tools such as the internet and cellphone technology for their own development. However, “Access to ICTs are mediated by gendered inclusion and exclusion. Women are still not in control of the tools they are using,” says Women’sNet Executive Director, Sally Shackleton.

Focus group discussion participants reported that they viewed pornography from family members or friends phones or even their own via the internet. They spoke of sharing nude pictures of themselves with their friends, as well as constant bullying, stalking and harassment while using their cellphones.

Speaking at the campaign launch, Goodness Zulu from the Film and Publication Board (FPB) said increased access to and use of technology presents particular challenges. The FPB has established the FPB Pro Child website to protect children from being exposed to inappropriate material.

Zulu explained that the FPB Pro Child hotline aims to safeguard children, especially girls as they are the most vulnerable to information and are also more explorative than boys. This website provides members of public with an opportunity to report child pornography or sexual abuse images discovered accidentally on the internet.

As part of the way forward for the campaign, Girls’Net has proposed the following actions:

SMS tips to South African youth and parents

These safety tips will be informative and serve as a means to caution young people. The idea behind this is to create a 'snowball effect' - where the message will be sent to the users via their cellphones and they will be requested to pass it on to others.

SMS Helpline
Using Mobilisr, an open source enterprise mobile messaging platform or Frontline SMS, a free, large-scale text-messaging solution for non-governmental – and non-profit organisations, a sms helpline will be established offering assistance to young people, parents and teachers if they are concerned about harassment or abuse.

Public/Private Partnerships
Partnerships between service providers (like MXit) and organisations that work with girls have the potential to assist service providers to offer safer spaces for young women. These organisations can offer feedback to service providers about keeping spaces that young people use, safe.

Addressing the conspiratory nature of mobile social networks
Social networks that are popular among young people tend to encourage an atmosphere of conspiratory communication – where spaces are marked by communication that is exclusive and secretive. This aspect of social networks is exploited through marketing campaigns – this needs to be addressed.

A culture of bravado, bragging, machismo must be addressed

The research revealed a high level of masculine bravado about ‘chicks’, ‘beauties’ and dating. Real life pressures for young men to be macho are extended to virtual spaces. In order to address the sexist nature of these communications, a different approach must be sought – one that is transformative rather than operating within a system of sexism and inequality.

Engaging with young people about rights and responsibilities

Girls’Net will engage with young women and men to educate them about their rights and responsibilities in online communications. Girls especially, must be given information on recognising abuse, how to address it, and how to make complaints and get assistance when they are harassed in virtual spaces.

Teachers, parents and management
In addition, there must be some engagement with teachers, parents and school management to help them encourage responsible use, and address problems when they occur. Rather than prohibiting use, or supervising use, adults must take a more empowering role in young people’s use of social networks and mobile technologies generally.

Girls’sNet has provided some safety tips for both adults and children to stay safe online:

  • Never give your personal details to anyone you have met online. This includes the name of your school, pictures of yourself, the place you live, anything someone could use to identify where you live
  • Do not send pictures of yourself to anyone – even if they send you one first (it might not even be a picture of them)
  • If the person you are chatting to insists on information, or keeps pressing you about your details – stop chatting!
  • If someone keeps trying to call or chat, or threatens you, tell someone you trust and get help
  • Report people who use abusive language; harass or abuse you; to the people who run the social network you use – the perpetrator can be banned from using it!

If you would like more information about the “Keep your chats exactly that” campaign, send an email to girlsnet@womensnet.org.za or contact Faith Nkomo, Girls’Net Programme Manager on 011 429-0000.

- Nicolle Beeby is the programme assistant to SANGONeT’s Civil Society Information Programme.

Related articles: 
HerITAge: Challenging the Myths about Girls and Technology
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