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By Dr Pieter Streicher, MD of BulkSMS.com. Uploaded on: 14 June 2011.
Communications technology, such as the internet and mobile phones, certainly make life easier: from online banking, to staying in touch, to news and weather on the go, and all the other benefits that have become such an integral part of our daily lives. Unfortunately, the same technology has also made it easier for criminals to prey on the young for purposes such as child trafficking.
Looking at international trends, it is unfortunately inevitable that we will
see a similar increase in South Africa in the use of the internet by organised
criminals to recruit victims. It is vital that anyone responsible for
protecting children tackles the role of the internet as an enabler of criminal
activity in order to successfully address the problem of child trafficking.
Around the world, human trafficking is in the top three criminal industries in
the world, along with the illegal arms trade and the drug trade. It is
profitable and growing fast, with estimates placing the annual revenue earned
from trafficking at between US $5 billion and $9 billion. Earlier this year, UK
children’s charity Barnardo’s said that children as young as 10 are being
targeted by networks of criminals that are getting increasingly organised
thanks to technology.
A 2006 Serbian study into the role of the internet in child trafficking, Human
(child) trafficking – a look through the internet window, set out to discover
just how vulnerable children are in internet chat rooms. They set up a dummy
profile of a 15-year old girl, using very straightforward information. Within
50 hours, over the course of a few weeks, and without initiating any
conversations themselves the profile was contacted 457 times. Men, up to 50
years old, initiated 86% of the contact and 27% of the conversations were
clearly sexual harassment.
In South Africa, we are unfortunately no doubt going to see the same trend as
internet use increases and our already high mobile phone adoption rate rises
even further. And while child abuse and trafficking affects all levels of
society we also have particularly vulnerable communities in some of our poorer
neighbouring countries that could make easy targets for child traffickers.
A new local study carried out by UNISA’s Youth Research Unit, on behalf of
Vodacom and the Film and Publications Board, revealed some alarming statistics.
The study, entitled Online Victimisation of Youth in South Africa, showed that
21% of the youth sample (12-25 years old) surveyed had been exposed to unwanted
conversations about sex online; more than 16% were asked for information of a
sexual or personal nature; and 6% of the children were encouraged to leave
Parents and teachers need to actively narrow the digital generation gap by
learning about and using the technology their children have grown up with and
are immersed in. If your child is on MXit or Facebook, you should be too. This
will not only give parents better visibility of their child’s online
activities, but also give them a better understanding of the technology and how
their children are using it, allowing them to react more appropriately when
they need to give their children guidance.
Parents and teachers should also realise that the internet that is accessed by
mobile phone is exactly the same as the internet accessed via computer.
Another important guideline is to ensure their children are only accessing age
appropriate services. So while services such as Facebook and MXit might say
they are suitable for ages 13 and older, related chat rooms or dating services
might be only appropriate for adults. For more information and advice on a
range of internet and mobile issues, parents can consult sites such as
Lawmakers and law enforcers need to look to countries with more advanced
internet environments and learn from best practices there. A key component of
these initiatives is a combined effort by major stakeholders to combat crime.
For instance, the European Union’s guidelines, entitled Safer social networking principles for the EU, requires social networking services to put the following principles in place to protect young users:
The reality is that with all the benefits we get from advancements in
communications technology, there come some very serious threats. Awareness
needs to be raised amongst parents, teachers and law enforcement alike, and
stakeholders need to be organised alongside law makers and enforcers to protect
the vulnerable, and make sure the benefits of technology outweigh the threats.