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Microsoft research reveals South Africans at high risk for harmful online behaviour

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South Africans are among the most at risk for exposure to negative behaviour online according to Microsoft’s 2019 Digital Civility Index (DCI) which was released today.

The annual study examines the online behaviour of internet users in 22 countries and its release coincides with international Safer Internet Day; a call to action for all stakeholders to join together in creating a better internet for everyone – especially younger users.

It gauges the attitudes and perceptions of teens between 13 and 17 and adults between 18 and 74, about the state of digital civility today and also measures people’s safety online and exposure to risks such as cyberbullying, unwanted contact and harassment as well as exposure to hoaxes and scams.

This year South Africa ranked 21st out of 22 countries surveyed for exposure to online risks.

“South Africans in general were found to suffer significant pain from online risks, with the most common hazards being unwanted contact from sources attempting to collect personal information, internet hoaxes and fake news, bullying and offensive name-calling and receiving unwanted sexual imagery – all of which were more prevalent in South Africa than the rest of the world,” says Kethan Parbhoo, Chief Marketing and Operations Office at Microsoft South Africa.

Millennials experienced the most risks

South African millennials and teenagers – particularly teenage girls – are most affected by online risks such as receiving offensive or obscene content, internet hoaxes and fake news, and bullying and offensive name-calling.

South African teenage girls suffer more than their global peers, with 68% reporting moderate to severe pain from online risks compared to 61% in the rest of the world. There has, however, been an increase in South African teens asking for help: 54% say they will ask a parent for help as opposed to 42% globally, while 37% will approach another adult for assistance compared to the global average of 28%.

Globally, 73% of millennials reported having been exposed to online risk. They also reported the highest levels of stress, pain, loss of online trust, sleep deprivation and depression as a result of online risk exposure compared to other age groups.

In contrast, millennials self-identified as the most confident of all age groups in their ability to handle risks, however, 60% of millennials admitted they were unsure where to find help should they be exposed to online risk.

Risks were harder on girls than boys

The level of risk exposure and their follow-on consequences was higher for girls than boys, the global study found. Pain from risks was also stronger and sustained longer for girls, and incidents were more emotionally burdensome when compared to boys.

Though girls reported less confidence in dealing with risks, they took more mitigating actions following them, including blocking or unfriending the perpetrator, reducing their amount of information shared online, and using tighter privacy settings on social media.

Sixty-two percent of girls reported that gender was the reason they were targeted, compared to 39 percent for boys. The gap was highest for sexual and personal/intrusive risks.

There was also a higher incidence of South Africans being called offensive names, with 56% having experienced this as opposed to 51% globally.

Perhaps the biggest risk that emerged, though, was receiving unwanted and unsolicited sexual images or messages. Seventy-eight percent of South Africans have been sent these types of images or messages, which is markedly higher than the 67% global average.

Interestingly, these risks do not just emanate from strangers with 30% of South African internet users facing risks from family and friends. This was an increase of nine percent in just a year.

“South Africa experienced more consequences from risks, but showed mixed results in taking positive action,” says Parbhoo. “Over half of South Africans surveyed (55%) became less trusting of people online, and 34% said they were less likely to participate in social media, blogs and online forums.”

Introducing the Council for Digital Good

In January 2017 Microsoft launched its inaugural Council for Digital Good, a pilot programme where young people and their parents can engage in fruitful discussions with Microsoft and other industry experts, nongovernmental organisations and policymakers.

The longer-term vision was to assemble young people from various regions to create local and regional councils of Digital Civility Ambassadors to help raise awareness of digital safety and to offer insights to stakeholders from young people in each region.

Today, Microsoft launched  its African Council for Digital Good, as well as an Arab Council for Digital Good. After receiving more than 750 applications from across the Middle East and Africa, 23 candidates were chosen to become ambassadors of digital civility for their region.

The members of each council – along with their parents – will come together for the first time at the African Council Summit on 23 and 24 February in Johannesburg, and at the Arab Council Summit on 2 and 3 March in Cairo. Here, Microsoft will look to build their capacity and raise their awareness around topics relating to digital civility and internet safety, to better equip them to be ambassadors themselves.

Following the event, monthly virtual calls and webinars will be scheduled to provide council members with further knowledge on the topic, as well as suggest activities and events that they can run in their schools and communities.

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