Let us do more to protect our children against cyberbullying

Children who have undergone cyberbullying often experience heightened levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. [iStockphoto]

The internet serves as an invaluable tool for children globally by fostering diverse learning experiences. Yet, over time, we are seeing the dark underbelly of the digital age emerging: cyberbullying.

Over the festive season, we witnessed children getting trolled over their associations, preferences, and affiliations as indirect victims of their parents’ online activities. Equally, as children reported to schools, different media houses covered content across social platforms with children’s real faces and identities. A glance into the comments in these posts show how our children are facing the insidious consequence of unregulated speech across social platforms.

Cyberbullying is the use of technology to harass, threaten, embarrass, or selectively target another person using demeaning images, videos, text, tweets, and posts. According to the Disrupting Harm in Kenya 2021 report, 21 per cent of children using the internet reported having been exposed to sexual comments that made them feel uncomfortable, including jokes, stories, or comments about their bodies and physical appearance.

Among the 212 children surveyed who had experienced cyber harassment, most noted that they had experienced it more compared to in-person bullying. Older children between the ages of 16-17 said the meanest comments came from strangers, family members and people closely known to them.  

Children who have undergone cyberbullying often experience heightened levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. The nature of online harassment takes a toll on every aspect of a child’s life by creating room for them to question their self-worth and in extreme cases, it has even led to tragic outcomes such as self-harm and suicide.

A UNODC 2020 survey described Kenyans as the worst bullies on Twitter globally, this trend was so shocking that former President Uhuru Kenyatta shut down his Facebook and Twitter accounts. Kenyans on Twitter rally each other towards a common ‘enemy’ and troll or shame them. Unlike adults who may choose to reiterate and stand up for themselves, children cannot. Most bullies hide their identities behind pseudo-accounts that are not easily traceable, making it hard for relevant authorities to trace them. The effects of abuse on children’s mental health cannot be overstated.

We acknowledge that many social media platforms have taken the initiative to introduce blocking options for account users who may use the same mail address for multiple accounts but were previously flagged for different wrongdoings. More can be done to bring social media perpetrators to account.

Tackling all forms of online child sexual exploitation and abuse cases including cyberbullying requires a comprehensive and multisectoral approach. The government has led in legislation through The Children Act 2022 by recognising cyber harassment and cyberbullying as crimes that would have offenders imprisoned and fined. It is important that the Directorate of Children Services responds to threats posed by different technological advancements.

Collaboration between the government and ChildFund’s SAFE CLICS project funded by The Safe Online Fund has seen an increase in digital literacy skills among 5,600 parents and caregivers across Nairobi, Kiambu, Kilifi, and Mombasa. Through targeted sensitisation campaigns, parents are now able to recognise if their children are facing any form of online abuse including cyberbullying, and effectively respond by alerting the national child helpline.

Additionally, 60 schools have been sensitised on digital empathy, responsible online behaviour, and the impact of cyberbullying. By cultivating a culture of respect and understanding, children can navigate the digital landscape with resilience and compassion.

While there are measures in place to combat the rising cases of cyberbullying, more work needs to be done by different industry players. Technology companies must have child protection measures while designing social media platforms. Reinforcing advanced content moderation tools, artificial intelligence, and machine learning algorithms that will detect and remove inappropriate child-targeted abuse and exploitation content in real time will ensure the internet remains a safe platform for everyone.