Growing up in the Social Media Age is fraught with risk. The cost of electronic devices has fallen dramatically since 2002, but it is the cost of accessing the internet and, with it, social media platforms that has fallen the farthest. Children and adolescents today have access to powerful devices and a plethora of platforms with which to access those platforms. We are all coming to terms with what this means for privacy and safety.
Facebook and the SCL Group have rammed home that nothing is ever truly private on the internet - and that deleting anything on the internet doesn't mean that it truly goes away. For this reason, individuals must learn how to manage the information they post online. The most vulnerable among us are children and adolescents who, in the cocoons of their families, homes, schools or faith-based communities, rarely have the maturity to appreciate the implications of sharing personal information on online platforms or with online communities.
One of the fastest growing and insidious communities is that which trades and traffics in child pornography. It takes advantage of the relative anonymity of online communities or platforms to infiltrate those which are populated by children and adolescents and takes advantage of the usually lax supervision of these communities and platforms to groom children for terrible things.
In Kenya, over the past day or so, the hashtag #IfikieWazazi has trended on Twitter. It is one of the starkest reminders that we must do more to not only understand what social media is capable of doing but also how to assist and guide our children in this environment. It used to be that children and adolescents learnt about trust and risk in the company of other children and adolescents by interacting in real life while playing or attending school or performing religious activities. This was done out in the open under the watchful eyes of parents, teachers or ministers of faith. The adage, "It takes a village to raise a child" was apposite as your local community, in one way or the other, played a role in your upbringing -- but only because it was relatively small and we knew most of the people in it.
The situation in online communities is not the same. Predators can and do hide among the majority of generally passive members of online communities, and they continually get more sophisticated in using these communities and online tools to groom children for insidious ends, or take advantage of children's naivete when they share more than is safe for them to share. The moralists pushing the #IfikieWazazi hashtag have almost certainly been infiltrated by child pornographers whose only mission is to spread far and wide sexualised images of children and adolescents. Those children's and adolescents' reputations are at risk as are their physical and mental well-being.
It has always been the role of parents to teach their children how to live in the world and how to protect themselves from risk. #IfikieWazazi shows how much more important this role is today. Parents and their children must have honest discussions about the freedoms children enjoy online and the risks they face because of those freedoms. We must not condemn children for making mistakes; we must teach them that no matter how benign an error might seem, it will always bear consequences. Some may be mild while other might harm them physically, emotionally, mentally and socially. We must show them how to live in a world where you can see and meet other people - and one where the people you interact with may not actually be people at all. It is time for parenting to take into account that the internet is one more environment that must be managed in order to raise string, intelligent and capable children.