Protecting children online is a global challenge, and Uganda is no exception. Currently, more than 13 million Ugandans use the internet.
Children, particularly, are vulnerable to cyber bullying. (Photo credit: AFP)
TECHNOLOGY | INTERNET
It is holiday time and 11-year old-Keith is fiddling with his tablet. He has full access to the internet.
All he does is play online games and search for answers for hard class tasks; at least that is what his parents think he does online. They have no idea about what he encounters online because they are too busy to notice.
Another child, 13-year-old Maria, is struggling with online bullying. A clique in her class mock her body at every turn using digitally-manipulated images. To her peers, it is a joke. To her, it is torture.
The world is celebrating Safer Internet Day today (Tuesday 6). This year's slogan is Create, connect and share Respect: A better Internet starts with you.
It is a call to action for every each of us to play their part in creating a better internet for everyone in particular the children. Protecting children online is a global challenge and Uganda is no exception.
Uganda has the youngest population in the world, with 77% under 30 years of age.
Currently, more than 13 million Ugandans use the internet. These usage numbers are expected to grow with continued economic growth, growth of the IT sector and interventions by the Government through the Ministry of Information Communications Technology and National Guidance. With the current surge in access to mobile phones, the need to safeguard the internet has never been greater for Uganda.
There is no doubt that over the years, advance in information technology has been responsible for positively impacting our lives. The internet has become the most resourceful space known to man, as limitless information is gathered and shared.
Amid this great advancement lies dangers such as cyber-crime, including online child sexual abuse and cyber bullying.
According to the Online Safety Education Toolkit developed by the National Information Technology Authority (NITA), in collaboration with the Internet Society Uganda, there are a number of ways children can be recruited by online abusers.
They can be enticed to develop friendships with strangers via the internet, trained to develop a habit of sharing sexual conversations, something they refer to as grooming, and trained to develop a liking for sharing nude pictures of themselves and others.
Consequently, they start getting threats from those strange “friends”, who will demand sex from them and sometimes money extorted from them.
Jane Ombaru, a mother of four, recognises the role of parents in this.
“My children spend most of their free time on these social media sites. They obviously face many dangers, but that is the world we live in today. While parents may be blamed for irresponsibility, it has become hard for us to follow our children’s online activity in this fast-paced social media space.
"I do not have a Facebook account, for example, but all of my children do. We have to get more involved in our children’s lives if we are to solve this problem,” she says.
Currently, more than 13 million Ugandans use the internet. (Photo credit: AFP)
Online exploitation also involves cyber bullying, which is any form of bullying using electronic means.
According to Rose Keshanyu, a counselor, cyberbullied kids experience anxiety, fear, depression and low self-esteem. They may also experience physical symptoms and struggle academically.
In 2015, the government, through NITA-U and Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), launched a portal for Ugandan citizens to report child sexual abuse images and videos, the first initiative of its kind in Africa.
James Saka, the executive director NITA-U, says: "It is true that uptake of ICT is growing at a great speed. NITA-U, for example, is offering over 281 free WiFi hotspots in Kampala and Entebbe after working hours and all day on weekends.
"The National Backbone Infrastructure (NBI), an optical fiber cable, is now connected to 33 major towns and we are making further connections. Amid such advancements, there is a rise of those that have malicious intentions, determined to compromise the progress. The online child sexual abuse reporting portal enables us as a country to contribute to making the internet a safer place."
In addition, NITA-U, in collaboration with the Internet Society Uganda Chapter, led to the development of an Online Safety Education Toolkit as a useful and convenient learning resource for children and youth on how best to stay safe online in their daily use of the internet.
“The toolkit is a practical take-home guide for children and youth to help them evade the risks that come with navigating the internet," explains Arnold Mangeni, the director of information security at NITA-U.
A multi-sectoral working group on child online protection has been put in place, centred at the internal affairs ministry, with the main purpose of educating all categories of internet users, including children, on responsible use of the internet.
The government addressed child protection through the establishment of the Computer Misuse Act (2011) that clearly criminalises child online sexual exploitation. The Act criminalises, among others, any acts, including the development, sharing, transmission or storage of child sexual abuse material.
The influence of the internet and social media on our society is growing stronger every day. With immeasurable advantages, it comes with some risks.
It begins with each one of us to take measures to protect ourselves and our communities, beginning with the children.