South African parents ought to turn their attention urgently to their children playing and constructing social rules outside the influence and guidance of adults. Violent media content, simulated and or real, is so pervasive and so viral it calls for an urgent rescue mission and a call to action.

Social media is a new playground for today’s youth. This playground is a paradise for children: there are new friends to make, countless games to choose from and if you have some good news to share, you are guaranteed an audience of hundreds, or thousands, or even millions.

And the best part: there are hardly any parents keeping watch. But just like the playground of old, it is also home to predators, lurking in the dark margins, ready to pounce. From paedophiles waiting to lure children away from the safety of their surroundings and snatch them away into the unknown; to crooks observing an entire family out on a picnic away from their home – a chance for a good old house-breaking. The worst enemy against these children, however, are other children.

Cyberbullying is increasingly grabbing the headlines globally, and recent cases of teenage suicide due to cyberbullying have shocked the nation. A recent international study carried out by Ipsos, found that 54% of South African parents know a child who has been victimised by cyberbullying (a majority among 28 countries involved in the study).

Social networks are very popular among young children, with millions spending an average of 3 hours daily online. Children are so hooked on the Internet that scientists are beginning to talk about it in terms of a recognised addiction. In response to the extraordinary popularity of online gaming, the World Health Organisation (WHO) in July 2018, added ‘Gaming Disorder’ to their International Classification of Diseases. This is a list of diseases and medical conditions that health professionals use to make diagnoses and treatment plans. It is early days as professionals work out what symptoms to look out for and what treatments to put in place. But the fact that this body has seen fit to place such focus on gaming is a sure sign that we need to stand up and take stock.

Addiction to online content

Several studies in South Africa and abroad show alarming levels of attachment to smartphones amongst young people especially. In the USA, as in South Africa, young people spend on average three hours daily on their cell phones. They check their phones at least 100 times per day, and 40% are reported to have used their cell phone in the toilet, while doing toiletty deeds! And (believe it or not) 12% have used their phones while in the shower!

South Africans do not fare any better. A recent study by the Bureau for Market Research, based at Unisa, has shown a similar pattern. 80% of the children who participated in that study said they were literally ‘dependent’ on their cell phones. 70% checked their phones as soon as they woke up, and 55% used their phones in the bathroom and during meals. Many will remember the mishap by hip hop artist Emtee, who accidentally livestreamed his penis to his 737 000 Instagram followers two years ago.

Another millennial (those who are between 27 and 38 years old today) used the livestream facility intentionally, to devastating effect. The Australian terrorist who attacked two mosques and killed 50 worshippers on 15 March in Christchurch, New Zealand, ensured that his actions were broadcast live.

Albeit for nefarious reasons, this terrorist’s effective use of social media speaks to his full appreciation of its power to propagate ideas or spread news fast. The murders were broadcast live and according to Facebook, less than 200 people witnessed the stream. More than 4 000 people had already seen the spine-chilling footage by the time Facebook took it down and closed the terrorist’s account – half an hour after the event. By then some viewers had downloaded and re-uploaded the video, making sure it popped up in YouTube and Twitter. He had posted his 74-page manifesto on his Facebook account, and promoted links where the stream could be downloaded – before the shooting started.

Netizens navigate cyberspace virtually free from parental guidance

The absence of parents in their children’s online activity is a concern. The Film and Publication Board learned during a study carried out with Unisa a few years ago that children are drawn to video games with high levels of graphic violence. Tellingly, among the games that apparently inspired the New Zealand terror attack, were those games children from 7 – 17 years old in South Africa counted as their favourites, notably Call of Duty and Battlefield.

The study found that parents also have a lax attitude towards the video games children play. Often ignoring the age ratings and consumer advisories placed by the FPB, parents tend to assume that playing a video game could not possibly cause harm to a child. Yet research has shown repeatedly that although there is no empirical evidence of a causal relationship between exposure to violent media content and violent behaviour, there is a positive correlation between the two. In other words, we are aware that aggressive behaviour, or much of human behaviour, is a product of many factors, including the environment. This might include repeated exposure to violent media content, which might desensitise viewers to real life violence, and even impede the viewer’s capacity for empathy to people in distress or victims of violence.

In South Africa we are witnessing increasing levels of classroom and school-yard violence. We have also seen escalating levels of gangsterism among adolescents involving public attacks, often recorded and shared on social media. In extreme cases, these have led to fatalities.

Perhaps it is time we thought about the ‘demonstrative effect’ these have. Are teenagers sometimes inspired to carry out copy-cat attacks in their own area when they see others gaining notoriety from such behaviour?

Back to the Christchurch butcher

Perhaps in refusing to mention the terrorist’s name, the New Zealand Prime Minister was acting against giving him the platform to propagate his racist, white supremacist views, turning him into a famous figure among those who share his worldview. A similar attitude followed the trial of the terrorist who attacked and killed 69 people in a youth camp in Norway back in 2011. There was a noted reluctance to allow the killer to use his trial as a stage for publicising his views. Norwegians subsequently protested the construction of a monument to this tragedy, as this was seen as a means to immortalise the perpetrator.

As South African parents grapple with the impact of social media and other media content on our children, it will be good to look beyond sexual content as a cause for concern, which it is. The portrayal of violence in our media bears a grim harvest and deserves to be treated accordingly. In the aftermath of the Norway attack, popular video games containing graphic violence were removed from the shelves. These included ‘Call of Duty’, ‘Homefront’, ‘World of Warcraft’ amongst others. Someone took action in the face of evidence that linked violent behaviour and a callous attitude towards cold blooded slaughtering of innocent people and exposure to violence in entertainment media.

South African parents ought to turn their attention urgently to their children playing and constructing social rules outside the influence and guidance of adults. Violent media content, simulated and or real, is so pervasive and so viral it calls for an urgent rescue mission and a call to action.