MySociaLife

Dean McCoubrey

Expert on SA’s Anti-Bullying Week: “Why are South Africans cyberbullying?”

South Africa has a problem that is getting harder to fix

“How would you know if your child was being cyberbullied?” That is the chilling question that we posed during this week’s Anti-Bullying Week in South Africa. Originated by the Anti-Bullying Alliance, this year’s theme is ‘One Kind Word.’

“The reality is that a surprising number of teens, and even pre-teens, won’t share that with you, as much as 40% have admitted they don’t want to open up, because they are worried parents may get angry, or be disappointed, or cause them embarrassment. Yet, students share this with us in schools and feedback in our online safety program. So we need to deeply rethink our approach.” 

Many adults hear the term ‘bullying’ or ‘cyberbullying’ and can easily assume this is the behaviour of immature school cliques. Still, in reality, bullying is driven by power dynamics, fear, insecurity, anxiety or personal exposure to aggressive and dominant behaviour that results in harassment and the invisible erosion of self-esteem. The impact causes the victim harm and can also extend into repeated behaviours by the perpetrator later in life, directed towards a colleague, employee, spouse, or partner.

Several studies in recent years have shown South Africa has rated in the top five in the world for cyberbullying – identified as when a child causes physical or emotional harm. Online, the behaviour is peaking at the age of 13, 14 and 15 years of age. Our one-hour lesson specifically covers all forms of online abuse, such as catfishing, outing, flaming, trolling, shaming, exclusion, image-based violence, and that’s just a few of them. We dig into the topic of empathy and show the consequences which can go as far as some students committing suicide. Cyberbullying is an invisible tormentor. It hides behind screens, evading parents and teachers. Even friends can miss the signs. Low self-esteem can make kids assume they deserve to be bullied or inhibit their ability to recognise it. Tweens and teens fear retaliation and worry that speaking up will only make things worse.

The challenge is not just technological but environmental. We want to blame devices for cyberbullying, but it’s more of a tool for bullying and not a reason for it. We have to understand the anxiety and anger that sits within our society, which has been aggravated by socio-economic challenges, the isolation during the pandemic and a surge of online users that have yet to be equipped by educators. That’s why bullying in South Africa is a crisis and not just a problem. Due to the leadership vacuum in this country, financial pressure in homes, and disconnected life skills and digital education, kids are acting out online in the same way they used to act out physically. South Africa is one of the more prominent cyberbullying nations in some studies. Education departments need to realise the powerful influence of social media and games and use them intelligently, re-directing the use of devices and platforms towards positive outcomes instead of negative ones. It is possible, but we are way behind right now. There’s a generational and technological divide.

According to Legalwise, South Africa’s CyberCrimes Act “criminalises a wide variety of cybercrimes. However, examples of crimes specifically associated with cyberbullying include electronic messages or social media posts towards a person that incite or threaten that person with violence or damage to their property; and the disclosure of intimate images of an identifiable person without their consent or link an identifiable person to such an image in the description of a data message. Intimate images refer to nude images, images of a person’s private parts (even if that person is wearing clothes), or edited images where a person is identifiable. With regards to children, these cybercrimes will also form part of the Child Justice Act 75 of 2008, which regulates how children will be dealt with when they are accused of committing crimes and what consequences they will face. Imprisonment may be imposed for children between the ages of 10 and 18, but only as a last resort and for the shortest period possible.”

Our best shot lies in education. Suppose we can assume that robust values-driven leadership may not change any time soon. In that case, we only have the opportunity to show the youth the benefits of digital citizenship, empathy, communication in conflict, how to manage cyberbullying, and how to self-regulate. These skills are something every child can call on when an adult may not know what’s happening. It’s their armour. There has to be an incentive for them. Every small positive decision – every kind word – can lead to a better path in life, but someone needs to light the way. Ironically, teaching them through social media and popular culture and showing them their choices and the consequences really do work. They can relate to it. Our program has proven to have a real impact on students in acting as that beacon that shows them the fork in the road to make better choices.

We are now an ambassador for the world’s leading online safety organisation!!

We have just been announced as a Common Sense Education Ambassador for the 2021-2022 school year. Already a Certified Common Sense Teacher, the invitation to become a global Ambassador means more parents, teachers and learners in South Africa can be provided with access to the world’s leading online safety resource, helping kids to be safer and smarter in a complex digital landscape of games and pop culture apps like TikTok, Omegle and Snapchat. This comes at a time where many students are reporting hours more screen time per day, increased mental health concerns, obsessive use of games and social media, and access to age-inappropriate content.


An independent, non-profit and research-backed resource, Common Sense Media, based in San Francisco, has been a leading global source of entertainment and technology recommendations for families and schools since 2003. Every day, millions of parents and educators trust their vast library of reviews that rate apps, games, movies, and TV shows so parents can feel secure about the entertainment choices they make for their kids. Their advocacy work highlights legislation related to technology and identifies solutions that protect consumer privacy, push for better connectivity for students and families, and hold tech companies accountable to ensure a healthy internet for all. Social media once again dominated the news in October after Frances Haugen, Facebook’s whistleblower declared the social media giant’s knowledge of the harm that their platform has on teen mental health.  

“There’s a huge amount of work to do in South Africa around online safety. And we need access to the world’s best resources. Ever since we started out a few years ago, we have had so much respect for CEO, Jim Steyer, and his team at Common Sense. We even flew to meet their team in New York two years ago, and later spoke again with their Vice President in San Francisco,” says Dean McCoubrey, our founder. “We are one of the few organisations in the world that train five different audiences – teens and pre-teens, and then parents, teachers and mental health professionals. This means that we can help get the Common Sense message into South Africa, and out to both learners and the adults that guide and care for them,” he adds. 

As an ambassador, we will play a role in elevating Common Sense Education resources, providing feedback to the global organisation and supporting fellow educators as they guide students to become learners, creators and leaders in this digital age. We will complete a number of activities such as hosting two professional learning events in South Africa during the school year, showcasing the work they’ve done using Common Sense Education resources. Our training team will also be upskilled via mini-webinars and receive ongoing support from global experts.

Ambassadors receive access to exclusive information and materials, via previews of new resources and materials to share in their own training, plugging into a larger audience of teachers and students around the world, and attending global conferences.


“It’s been a huge year for us. We have been shortlisted as Startup Company of the Year at the GESS Education Awards 2021 in Dubai, which will be announced in the middle of the month. And this work with Common Sense will only deepen the expertise that we already have,” McCoubrey concluded. “We are excited about what we can do for online safety in South Africa and Africa.”

Omegle: Setting up Kids With Strangers ???

With the slogan ”Talk to Strangers!” splashed across their homepage, one should already feel dubious about the popular video-chatting website. A closer look and it only gets worse – the page offers tens of thousands of users private chatrooms with strangers worldwide, at just a click of a finger. Omegle is a website that links people up at random for virtual video and text chats. They claim to be moderated but have an ill-famed reputation for foul and unpredictable content. The site is swarming with predators, who use it to groom children and gather sexual abuse material, and it is almost a guarantee that your child will encounter sexual content.

Omegle users do not have to register or enter data, and there are no usernames or photos. Your name is ”you”, and the person you are speaking to is ”stranger”. Users open the site on a web browser, from a computer, Ipad or phone. Users can add topics to help find strangers with common interests. There are clickable options of text, video or college student chat. The website is simple and pairs users at random with people accessing the site. There are no privacy or security settings on the website, and it is not uncommon for strangers to send users their IP addresses while using the site. With 10.4 billion views of #omegle on TikTok, trends of famous app users meeting their fans have gone viral and encouraged an Omegle revival. Children go on Omegle in groups and alone, looking for excitement, but it is not harmless entertainment and presents many threats that could have severe outcomes.

The pandemic has caused people worldwide to feel isolated and seek interaction. Omegle grew from 34million visits per month in January 2020 to 65 million in January 2021. Although the site says one must be 18+ or 13+ with parental permission and supervision to use Omegle, there is no age verification. Users can simply open the site and start chatting. With no better way to gather research than experiencing Omegle, I opened the site and was paired anonymously with someone in seconds. He jumped into overwhelming flattery over text and then removed his hand from the camera to reveal himself masturbating.

Besides the obvious concerns about this, the flattery stands out, as children who suffer from low self-esteem are at a higher risk of being roped into something they otherwise would not do. Some may find innocent conversations on Omegle, but the likelihood of both parties looking for that is extremely rare. Curiously in children is only natural so telling them not to use the app is insufficient. Talk to your children about the dangers of conversing online with strangers and remind them that what happens online is never truly anonymous. Click here to see a guide on how to block Omegle.

Our ratings of Omegle:
Trending factor 7/10
Online risk factor 10/10
Safety settings availability 0/10

Article written by Ruby Koter, Cape Town, South Africa.

World Mental Health Day: How can we make “mental health care a reality for teens and tweens?”

“If Instagram is such a positive force, have we seen a golden age of teenage mental health in the last 10 years? No, we have seen escalating rates of suicide and depression amongst teenagers,” she continued. “There’s a broad swath of research that supports the idea that the usage of social media amplifies the risk of these mental health harms.” These were the words of Frances Haugen, Facebook’s whistleblower testifying during a Senate Committee this week, just a few days before World Mental Health Day.

Mental health care for all: let’s make it a reality, is a theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day celebrated on 10th October, supported by the World Health Organisation. After 20 months and three waves of a pandemic, lockdowns and school and business interruptions, the task is as daunting this year as perhaps any before it.

 

“There’s a broad swath of research that supports the idea that the usage of social media amplifies the risk of these mental health harms.” –Frances Haugen, Facebook

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) notes that nine percent of all teenage deaths are by suicide, adding that suicide is the second leading and fastest-growing cause of death among young South Africans in the 15-25 age group.

Cassey Chambers, SADAG’s Operations Director, says 90 percent of adolescents who die by suicide have an underlying mental illness – frequently, depression. While some people do have a genetic tendency towards depression, others develop it as a result of loneliness, social isolation, bullying, loss, abuse, and conflict. There are additional contributors that this generation is contending with – the increased exposure to the news at an earlier age and the tendency to ‘doomscroll’ on social media or compare their life to others.

The first detailed study of how social media affects the mental health of young users. has found that increased participation in social media networks, such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp and others, is associated with increased psychological distress. With the effects almost twice as severe among girls.

We are seeing the effects of social media first-hand when we engage with teens and tweens about their online life during our 8-lesson in-school program.

“Students tell us about the pressure they feel around life online, and many agree that it can bend their character or values, leading to inappropriate or out of character behaviour,” says Dean McCoubrey, our founder – we also train parents, teachers and psychologists to help children feel safer and behave smarter online. 

 

The increased exposure to the news at an earlier age and the tendency to ‘doomscroll’ on social media or compare their life to others.

“This age group is not adequately equipped to manage the complexity of the varied risks, temptations and dangers online. When parents and teachers understand the development stages of kids and how these devices and platforms influence their neurochemistry at this vulnerable and immature stage, we can all start to grasp why this is happening,” he says. “Mental health is affected when we fail to have enough ‘in person’ contact, secondly a lack of exercise and thirdly repetitive thought patterns that are negative media exposure, known as doomscrolling. The gradual erosion of self-esteem that teens end up with, after comparing themselves to their peers highlight reels and the mental fatigue from cyberbullying or online intimidation also play a role.”

Education will have to play a bigger role in making mental health care a reality for teens and tweens. The detrimental effects of social media can be reduced by also adding in the training of parents, teachers and school counsellors. We created four programs, and not just a student program, because all the adults in the chain of care have to contribute. Not enough people understand the complexity of how humans react and respond to social media, and what the consequences are, especially because teens can keep things quite hushed.

Between 30 and 40% of teens and pre-teens say they cannot share their concerns with their parents, aligning with global data and emphasizing that schools and parents should take children’s social media experiences much more seriously.

It doesn’t help that teens and pre-teens explore the internet without the one-on-one guidance of parents or teachers, and even if filters are applied, they stumble onto content that they’re not yet able to process. 

Our program is pro-technology, which is changing the world in so many creative, entertaining, and philanthropic ways, but the fact remains that children need more digital education.

 

It doesn’t help that teens and pre-teens explore the internet without the one-on-one guidance of parents or teachers

So many kids are so ”social” and yet so many are also feeling alone – it’s the great paradox of social media. We will look back on this time, in a decade or two, and ask why we didn’t prepare our children more carefully and give them the tools to think critically and self-regulate.

World Mental Health Day gives parents and children the opportunity to start conversations about mental illness, emphasising that there is no shame in struggling with mental health while re-establishing those vital real-life connections. With 75 percent of teen suicides having spoken about their intention before proceeding, there’s a strong possibility that parents, teachers and friends that listen carefully to depressed teens may indeed be able to act in time to save a life. 

World Teachers’ Day: Our new program is here to “teach the teachers” about technology, social media and digital potential

The rise of e-learning means educators need to upskill on digital risks while inspiring students to reach their ‘digital potential’

Today is World Teachers’ Day, and our new program to ‘teach the teachers‘ around the latest challenges and opportunities of a life spent increasingly online, has just launched. 

The 75-minute online course uses a web-based ‘log in and learn’ approach to reveal what’s happening regarding social media, apps, trends, cybersecurity, scams, mental health and essential privacy settings. From this foundation, they can approach their students with a greater understanding and deeper interest to find what excites them in the digital space.

Dean McCoubrey, our founder, explains, “We know the majority of teens and pre-teens are online more, so how are we guiding them to look behind the right doors with that screen time? While social media, apps and games are entertaining, there are also amazing websites, apps and resources to help educate, inspire, and, even make money from. It’s evident that there is a skills gap in our country already. We have to start earlier to mentor students in finding multiple interests in this rapidly evolving world of technology. Some of these students will only enter higher education in the middle of this decade and then graduate into the workplace in 2030. Jobs will be fiercely contested and relevant skills will be central. It’s a little like retirement, the earlier you start and the better the guidance, the returns will be greater.”

“By teaching the teachers, we can help them guide their students to other ways of using smart devices that may open doors for them, ones which can lead to a love of photography or programming or analytics. If you take the amount of time spent online by GenZ and borrow just 10% of it per day and direct it towards a passion or hobby, you can generate fresh momentum. It can also help with mental health too, given the deeper purpose that students find,” McCoubrey adds.

Tough times

However, most teachers do not feel equipped to deal with the diverse aspects of a digital social life, and it can feel like it’s a vast online landscape to understand, while others admit to being overwhelmed during an uncertain and difficult 18 months. They need training that is concise and relatable, given the pressures.

Accessibility 

The program seeks to first explain the different dimensions of life online for students between Grades 4 to 6 and also Grades 7 to 11 – latest trends, social apps, gaming, cyberbullying, fake news, privacy and security issues. Increased screen time can also mean increased risk so you have to know what’s in front of you as a teacher first, so you can navigate the space with these age groups.

Our founder says, “Having taught this exact module myself in schools for several years and now moving teach it online, I am so delighted to make this accessible, not just to teachers in South Africa, but to other African countries. We have received interest from Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya for our program. The simplicity of our learning management system (LMS) means that educators can first download a lesson plan, plus a teacher pack of tips and tools before they watch the six instructional videos. It’s all about simplicity and accessibility.”

The vantage point of listening 

Our programs approach the education of digital risk and digital potential using a four-prong approach of teaching students, their teachers, their parents and psychologists, the first on the continent to do so, giving them a unique vantage point of listening to all groups and helping to bridge the technological divide. The approach has seen us shortlisted this month as ‘StartUp Company of the Year’ at the GESS Awards in Dubai, with winners to be announced on November 15th. 

Ironically e-learning, with all its benefits, has also increased the need for foundational digital citizenship skills. We have seen a real increase in attention from schools this year. They have come to the realisation that e-learning, social media, gaming and smart devices are not going away. They are also more nervous about the reputational damage that can hit their schools if they don’t take a more active role. The only solution is to bring together the adults and the students in a more united approach to the challenges and the opportunities of this evolving space. 

From there, we can point students in the direction of their passions, so they can develop skills beyond their peers. You cannot see that path unless someone lights up the way.

Yik Yak is back: What you need to know.

The infamous Yik Yak has resurfaced on the apple app store after a four years hiatus. The once-popular app took its tumble after blame for cyberbullying, hate speech and threats of violence. This time, Yik Yak has pledged to keep its users safe.

Yik Yak is a location-based anonymous social media app. The app was founded in 2013 by Furman University students Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington. It soared to popularity among colleges, universities and schools. Users could view threads within a five-mile radius of their location. These posts were upvoted or downvoted, with the most popular rising to the top. The app reached its peak in 2014, racking up around 1.8 million downloads, but met a plummeting decline and ignoble end by 2017 after being delisted from Google Play Charts.

Both the users and the business itself were the cause for the decline. The users utilised the anonymity of the app – bullying and hate speech were rife. At a point, Yik Yak was compelled to block middle and high school users when in-app harrying poured into real life. Menaces of bombing and gun violence caused some schools to go into lockdown in 2014. Yik Yak shared details of students who posted these threats with the police, some of whom faced criminal charges and arrests.

The company lacked action and responsiveness in resisting these behaviours, failing to implement proactive steps to remove harmful content and improve user experience. The eventual destructive in-app changes removed anonymity by creating usernames and handles, which led people to stop posting almost overnight.

An MIT media lab study compared Yik Yak to Twitter. Its findings showed that posts on the anonymous platform were only somewhat more likely to include vulgar words, with a difference of less than one per cent. So what was it about Yik Yak that made the harassment so disturbing? Many have noticed the app’s hyper locality, knowing that the hateful content was not from a stranger in a basement somewhere but instead, from the same classrooms and dining halls where the students were.

The newly vamped company says it is taking a strong stance against hate speech and bullying, with a new one-strike policy set up. “If someone bullies another person, uses hate speech, makes a threat, or in any way seriously violates the Community Guardrails or Terms of Service, they can be immediately banned from Yik Yak. One strike, and you’re out.” They have also created mental health and stay safe resources.

The development rights for the app were purchased from Square in February 2021 by new owners, who are currently unidentified. “We’re bringing Yik Yak back because we believe the global community deserves a place to be authentic, a place to be equal, and a place to connect with people nearby,” stated the website.

The new app is exclusively available to American IOS users for download, but the company says it soon intends to extend to more devices and countries. Students seek to express themselves where they feel heard. The anonymity of Yik Yak allows students to feel “safe” and free of judgment. The encouragement to be “authentic and anonymous” in an online space could prompt people to say or do things they usually would not. The promise of anonymity is misleading – personal information may spill via another person, which could be enough for a waiting predator. Upholding the guidelines is dependent on the users, meaning that banned topics could easily be seen by many before being removed. It’s important to remember that nothing posted online is truly anonymous, and threats of violence is a legal offensive in most places.

Yik Yak’s anonymous structure and interaction with nearby strangers may impose danger, specifically towards children. So the revival of the app has us wondering: Will Yik Yak be safer the second time around?

It’s unlikely. Do your due diligence before allowing this and similar anonymous chat apps into the suite of socialising channels that make their way onto your child’s phone or tablet…

– Article by Ruby Koter

TODAY, World Youth Skills Day: Unemployment driving unrest in South Africa

Is there a way we can reverse youth unemployment in this country? 

In the midst of South Africa’s deep unrest, 15th July is World Youth Skills Day. Tragically, the country’s youth unemployment rate reached a new record of 32.6%, the highest since the quarterly labour force survey began in 2008, totalling 7.242 million people out of work.
Employment lies at the centre of many socio-economic ills, given its capacity to fill time, provide purpose, generate income and drive greater equality. But employment can only be driven by skills training.  

Africa is burdened with an additional challenge: many struggle with literacy, due to the poor delivery of basic education. So, where might hope and inspiration be found in the next decade? In our pockets.

Smart device costs continue to come down, and new manufacturers are bringing in devices at lower costs, as well as data prices slowly dropping, meaning increasing access as we move through this decade, and more opportunity to upskill via online learning on a phone, with a growing resource of training platforms which offers free training programs like Coursera, Udemy, Udacity and Khan Academy.
But, explains Dean McCoubrey, Founder of MySociaLife, South Africa’s leading digital education and media literacy program, “There are many promises various governments have made about their promise of leadership in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), but how many understand the foundational digital skills required? You can’t just jump into robotics or coding, you need to understand what it is to be a digital citizen to embrace the free resources of the internet. Without it, you are driving a vehicle without a licence, or a map. How do you explore and grow safely?”

McCoubrey explains that the foundation is required in the same way previous generations were taught at length to hold a pencil and use those words they create more wisely. By contrast, increasingly, the internet is seeing spikes of misinformation and cyberbullying.

“With the basics in place of media literacy – understanding media, its power and influences, and fake news – as well as digital literacy such as privacy, cybersecurity and handling technology carefully, we can shift gear into exploration and expansion. We can find avenues of income. MySociaLife shows teens where they can learn photography for free, for example, and then show them where to sell their photos or videos,” adds McCoubrey.

Teens and pre-teens use the apps and devices so intuitively, and it’s a huge advantage. Some children are poor in school but brilliant online, which means there could be an alternative for young South Africans that could transcend the lack of quality basic education.

“We stand at a doorway to vault over other African countries, but we need guidance to know which keys will open it and prepare Generation Z for a 4IR future. We need to focus on basic digital education as well before it’s too late and we miss a glaring opportunity.”

Looking at TikTok and other social media and gaming platforms, popular culture has youth fascinated and motivated, with approximately 60% of its 1bn users globally found in the GenZ age range. We already sing, dance, shoot videos and photos, why not build on this, and start to use these skills? What if we taught them how to do it safely, intelligently and with purpose. Minecraft For Education, for example, is a way to game and code at the same time, learning a new “language”.

MySociaLife approaches the challenge by not only teaching kids foundational digital skills but also their teachers and parents on how to direct youth to opportunities and realise potential, while at the same time ensuring online safety too – “two sides of the same coin.” A South African EdTech training platform, it allows schools to simply log in and learn using eight hours of video training for learners aged 8 to 18 including subjects such as online safety, privacy, cybersecurity, digital footprint, bullying and intimidation, fake news, and ways to build skills and generate income online.

The World Economic Forum listed its top 10 skills for “The Future of Work in 2025” and these included technology monitoring, use and control, and also technology design and programming, critical thinking, social influence, reasoning and stress tolerance. “We teach many of these skills to kids in schools and they respond with such energy and enthusiasm. It’s something that ignites them.”“On World Youth Skills Day, this is a call to the government to understand both the challenges and the opportunities of media and digital literacy – and to accept how much they need to quickly grasp with regard to evolving popular culture, pre-teen and teen usage of devices simply because of the generational divide and technology divide. It could deliver a huge shift in employment, direction and momentum over time. We are completely missing this right now,” says McCoubrey.


“Even kids that are literate and have unlimited access are not fully utilising their devices and media platforms to their full potential. The outcome of digital citizenship is a more aware and responsible society because it reduces the negativity and polarity online, increases people’s ability to choose their next action, embracing the net for what it can offer – to share, to inform, to educate, to deliver income, to support, and much more. It’s apparent we would greatly benefit from this right now,” he concludes.

About MySociaLife

  • Schools can purchase the course and “login and learn” – using lesson plans, tips and tools and an assessment, with over 8 hours of training
  • Parents can access a 90-minute training to navigate their child’s online landscape
  • Teachers can access a 75-minute training to guide their students

Delivering an 8-module ‘Digital Citizenship Curriculum’, via webinar or Learning Management System, to Grade 4 to 11 learners in South African Schools, MySociaLife is the leading Digital Life Skills Program in the country. The Program has unmatched efficacy (data) with regards to student impact and behavioural change from the extensive modules which include: critical thinking, cyberbullying and empathy, sexuality online, a digital values system, privacy and security, mental health and resilience, and screen time addiction. End goal? Safer, smarter kids online – who will be able to explore and excel way beyond their peers as we slipstream into the highly competitive and demanding Fourth Industrial Revolution. 

Online Safety Index highlights SA kids’ vulnerability

Child Online Safety Index 2020

South Africa’s children are the second most likely in the world to be exposed to risky content, including violent or sexual content, second only to Thailand.

This is according to the DQ Institute’s 2020 Child Online Safety Index (COSI) which helps nations better understand their children’s online safety status 

The COSI also notes that South African children are among those greatest at risk of cyberbullying, for establishing risky contacts online, and for putting their reputations at risk online. This is despite low levels of mobile device ownership, likely exacerbated by low levels of parental guidance and online safety education, and relatively low access to the internet, compared to the other 30 developed and developing countries reviewed in the research.

One of the platforms most popular among children and teens is TikTok, a short-form video-sharing app that lets users create and share short videos with soundtracks on any topic of their choice, that loops when it’s finished. It has approximately one billion active users worldwide, with one-third of its users being between the ages of 10 and 19, with The Verge recently highlighting that children spend an average of 80 minutes per day on the platform.

“Children love how there’s so much happening in TikTok videos – there’s sound, and action, and insights into other people’s lives – particularly appealing during the pandemic, when social interaction has been limited,” says Dean McCoubrey, founder of MySociaLife, a South African in-school Digital Life Skills Program teaching digital life skills program for schools.

“The speed of the TikTok feed appeals to kids’ love of intensity – loud music, bright lights, something new every couple of seconds – but this level of information density may lead to addiction, bullying, and impaired mental health, while the platform’s lack of restrictions on how can join and post content meaning that strangers can easily engage with children, without their parents’ knowledge, and embark on malicious relationships with them,” he adds.

This is why it’s vital that parents, teachers and counsellors find out what content the children in their care are consuming, and that they navigate each platform’s privacy and security features to ‘lock up the doors and windows of their children’s digital houses’.

“Keeping kids off online platforms is simply no longer a possibility, so the best we can do is to teach our children about choice and responsibility – two of the key themes in MySociaLife’s online, blended, and face to face programmes offered to South African schools,” he says.

McCoubrey highlights that TikTok recently launched a Family Safety Toolkit, developed in partnership with the DQ Institute, which incorporates the DQ Framework, the world’s first global standard related to digital literacy, skills, and readiness.  

The toolkit offers parents a list of digital tips they can refer to when setting guidelines for their children’s TikTok use, and includes suggestions like checking the child’s tech readiness, agreeing on family tech boundaries, setting smart limits on screen time, and having regular open and honest conversations about cyber-bullying. 

Discussions about privacy, risky content and contacts, sexting, disinformation, and the importance of support networks will also help children navigate their way safely around TikTok, and other social media platforms.

“Teens and pre-teens have so much more to deal with than their parents could ever have imagined, which is why it’s important to equip them with the tools they need to navigate their way around the online world,” explains McCoubrey.

“Teaching them critical thinking, understanding the impacts of cyberbullying, and empathy, along with how to adopt a healthy digital identity are all essential steps for them learning how to embrace technology and use it safely, how to explore it without fear, and even to use it as a means for good.”

Equipping teens and tweens with awareness of online issues – on TikTok and on any other digital platform – helps them respond more positively and make better choices, whether or not their parents are watching.

Videohttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6Cw10yr9OY

Notes to Editor: About MySociaLife Delivering an 8-module ‘Digital Citizenship Curriculum’, via webinar or Learning Management System, to Grade 4 to 11 learners in South African Schools, MySociaLife is the leading Digital Life Skills Program in the country. The Program has unmatched efficacy (data) with regards to student impact and behavioural change from the extensive modules which include: critical thinking, cyberbullying and empathy, sexuality online, a digital values system, privacy and security, mental health and resilience, and screen time addiction. End goal? Safer, smarter kids online – who will be able to explore and excel way beyond their peers as we slipstream into the highly competitive and demanding Fourth Industrial Revolution. Click here, www.mysocialife.com

Additional training kits for parents (links)

Zigazoo, the new “TikTok” for kids. But, is it safe?!

Zigazoo is the new “TikTok” for kids. In a nutshell, it’s an education/entertainment app, which engages students in meaningful learning and problem-solving activities whilst entertaining them. It doesn’t seem so harmful, does it? But, is it safe for kids?

The terms of service (but not the app description) clearly state that Zigazoo is meant to be used with a parent, and personal data is treated as though it’s from those over 13…. however that’s just words in a contract – how is that enforced?

Investment, investors and social media apps have a long track record of chasing revenue at any cost. Why would this be different?

So, back to the question: is Zigazoo safe for kids? Well, there are no such things as safe apps. How do we know if they’re safe, or not? We need to ask questions like:
How does the app guarantee it being safe? And for how long?
How can it be enforced?
Will parents use it with their child?
How is the age proven?

And, even though it’s an age-restricted version of “TikTok”, you are still allowing your child to post videos of themselves publicly (which is a privacy issue) and you are still encouraging screentime (even though it might be “more meaningful” screentime, it’s still screentime, which comes with a cost.

We asked Dean McCoubrey, founder of MySociaLife, and this is what he said:
“My view is that it’s fun and cool, and creative, but that comes at the cost of obsessing about other people’s lives / dance moves / clothes / bodies on screen, which isn’t that healthy – it directly targets the self-consciousness and need for attention of some adolescents. It eats time. And are the rewards of losing that time big enough?”

Tackling social media, mental health, apps, risks and other challenges, is difficult, especially if you don’t understand the context of this online landscape to the lengths that it stretches. However, the MySociaLife digital wellness programs make this easy for you, through four shared solutions. Let’s make things better online, with a new generation of conscious, informed critical thinkers. 🙏💥🧠

For more info, contact us! info@mysocialife.com

Media literacy. DTRT.

Do you know what LMIRL stands for in a WhatsApp or text? How about WTTP? Or PIR? The answers are “Let’s Meet In Real Life’ ‘Want To Trade Pictures?’ and ‘Parent in Room’.

Smartphones, tablets, gaming consoles, PCs and laptops, LTE, 5G, and WiFi have meant explosive access to the internet, especially for kids, who just a decade or so earlier wouldn’t have enjoyed such exposure or reach. But as each one stepped into the world wide web, who provided them with a guide, or an understanding of the vast landscape of media, influence, opportunity and risk that comes with consuming stories? Dependent on household income, teens and pre-teens will access devices at different ages, but I would hazard that only a tiny minority are educated at ‘inception’ about what it means to be media literate and online savvy. 

MySociaLife teaches digital citizenship, online safety and media literacy to almost 4000 students a year and we teach them 8 modules be delivering these modules online or in person, term-after-term, over a year (ie resulting in 32000 learners or ‘seats’). We also teach their parents, their teachers, mental health professionals and GPs in South Africa, now in the thousands. We have requests for our Program from schools in China, Australia and Canada already which are in discussion. We have started teaching large corporates simply because business leaders are concerned that their vast workforce may not be media literal digital citizens and could drag their brand into reputational harm. As Warren Buffett wisely imparted, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

For the grownups, we can feel a little less sympathy, because it is understood that adults need to self-educate if we want to take control of our lives. By the time we reach adulthood, we (ideally) grasp that the future lies in our hands. But for teens and pre-teens, we cannot hold the same expectation. Adolescence is about being educated if you are fortunate enough, but then forgetting or ignoring the lessons, and then making the mistakes enough times or failing the tests to later force absorption of the teaching and bring about change. 

But what happens when our kids are not taught about life online and so do not even have the basic information and tools to manage the complexity of privacy, security, identity, sexuality, mental health, reputation on this high-speed train of transient content? 

We have the answer to this question. We are frequently dumbfounded by what we hear around South Africa from teenagers who reveal the extent of the challenges within social media and other aspects of their dynamic and exciting life online. We hear of ‘sextortion’ rackets in which teens are persuaded to share naked images and then bribed for money or more pictures, we see identity theft in which a Grade 10 loses her entire account of 1450 friends, with the cybercriminal casually approaching and later threatening the student’s sister and mother. We see incidents of ‘catfishing’ in which adults pretend to be to kids to approach them, or boys pretend to be attractive young girls to try and get sexts from them. Our work in schools offers a privileged vantage point and our unique differentiator is that we are good listeners. 

Armed with this knowledge of where our kids find themselves, how should we help them in the form of a solution?

Kobus van Wyk, The CEO of ADESSA (Associated Distributors of Educational Supplies in Southern Africa) proposed this to me in a recent Zoom call. He holds up a pencil and says that decades ago we were taught how to hold it between thumb and forefinger. When we hold a pencil like a lollipop it doesn’t function optimally, and normally attracts attention from others with critical comments. Van Wyk believes we need to attend to smart device and app education with similar vigour and attention from early stages in school. But, moreover, what we do with that pencil – the power of our words to help or harm – is also equally important, but less talked about. 

In a world of comparison on social media, we would see a different society if we were taught to employ empathy and choose our words wisely. Digital citizenship is a multi-dimensional curriculum guiding learners to be responsible online. Media literacy has been defined as “being able to access, analyze, and evaluate information, which we receive through media. Being media literate means being able to create media messages and to use the technology tools available to us. It means being able to think critically and speak confidently.”

If you have seen any of the well-known movies like The Great Hack or The Social Dilemma on Netflix, these reveal an important truth about where we find ourselves – we are mere pawns in the attention economy, where monolithic social and technology platforms fight for our time online because time means ad placements, and that results in income and happy shareholder value. These media masters have worked out what humans want – photos, moving images, bold headlines, sensationalism – which is not that new, but the novelty lies in the algorithms that collect our data and serve us more of what we like and want, or what outrages us, to keep us online. 

In these movies, their failing was that none of them delves deep enough into the impact on our impressionable kids. Media always had influence, but now it’s on another level. The Social Dilemma worked so well because it used the senior product developers of these platforms to admit to the fact that social media is not what they hoped it would b and reveal the darker side of corporate greed and competition. However, it failed to show how the tentacles that stem from this reach out and touch our kids in many ways, eroding self-esteem, exacerbating mental health challenges, and putting teenagers at risk.

In 2020 we have almost 4.5bn humans online, of which almost 4bn are on mobile devices. TikTok has had, prior to a recent ban in India, 800m monthly users, of which 40% were teenagers. That’s power. And I have to say that MySociaLife has been surprised by the dynamic activism of this generation possessing an unapologetic, vocal unwillingness to tolerate some of the irresponsible behaviour of the generations before them – climate change, #MeToo and #BLM. It’s no longer a case of “kids should be seen and not heard.” These adolescents believe that they have a right to impart their perspective and (often naive) wisdom because this planet and this multicultural diversity will indeed be theirs, and their children’s, to manage. In that event, it appears that South Africa should have done a much better job in educating our 12 million school-going learners to prepare and ready them for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. These kids are the future of work. They are our future workers.

But education hasn’t happened for a number of reasons. In some parts of the country, we cannot even get basic literacy right. We have a long way to go. Government’s mindset is to provide tablets to reach 4IR goals, and not provide foundational education in how to use the tablets for good, for change, for success. They are interested in what we teach in our Program but it’s long-winded and complicated to adopt the curriculum. We aren’t holding our breath.

It’s hard for adults to actually get it. They also consume content rather obliviously and lack the sufficient critical thinking skills expected of an older and wiser generation to question the authenticity of the text, images and captions that they are presented with. There’s no secret that many media titles and outlets lean to one side or another, to left or right, or far left or far right. In fact, a recent infographic painted a unique picture of the somewhat transparent bias within a number of the world’s most popular news outlets. 

In fact, this Is arguably the first time in history that an area of popular culture is being navigated by the child and the parent at the same. Everyone is learning on the job. 

So, there is only one solution and that is to get the ball rolling. Education leaders need to do a much better job of intervention. There is so much to gain through digital citizenship, media literacy, and critical thinking training simply because of the sheer volume of screen time and the diversity of touchpoints and devices which will not abate – teenagers are consuming one hour more media every year. And as they do this, the meaningful connections and moments in their lives, the key minutes and hours of face-to-face contact and sharing of values is starting to dwindle. 

Digital identity, critical thinking, media literacy and fake news, privacy and cybersecurity, digital footprint and reputation, sexuality online, empathy, mind health and resilience – these are what we teach, and the students love it. This is square in their ballpark, but we reveal the corners they haven’t visited – the dark and the light, and share skills that may last them a lifetime and change the way they see technology, the internet, devices and social media. For better and for worse. It’s time for the government and education leaders to DTRT. Do The Right Thing.