SA's teens are abusing social media - & the law is catching up to them

Minors need to be made aware that their digital footprints can impact on their future lives and careers

08 October 2017 - 00:00 By SUE DE GROOT
Teens need to think about how their use of social media could harm themselves and others.
Teens need to think about how their use of social media could harm themselves and others.
Image: iStock

When Penny Sparrow fell foul of the law with her racist rant, it put the fear of Facebook into cyber-bigots - for about five minutes. There may be some adults who now think twice before posting ugly messages, but when it comes to teenagers, their self-regulating brain mechanisms are not yet developed enough to prevent them from becoming either victims or perpetrators of sexting and cyberbullying.

These twin scourges have spiralled out of control, say Emma Sadleir and Lizzie Harrison, who give talks about the risks of digital life. They have also just published a book, Selfies, Sexts and Smartphones: A Teenager's Online Survival Guide.

"The talks were a reaction to feeling helpless when children phoned with a crisis," says Sadleir. "Often when the kids come to us it's too late, because with the internet once the harm's done, it's done. It's going to follow them. It's public; it's permanent. The book is because we can't get around the schools fast enough."

Sadleir calls their presentations "the modern-day equivalent of the drug talk. You come in and you scare the hell out of them, and hopefully 90% of them listen. Ten percent think it'll never happen to them - until it does."

The Digital Law Company in Birdhaven, Johannesburg, looks nothing like a traditional legal office. It is a bright, open space where everyone can hear each other. Just like on the internet.

Sadleir's legal practice is inundated with requests for help from children in trouble. A recent case involved a 13-year-old girl from a Johannesburg private school who met a boy at a party. Two days later he started begging her for nude pictures. He asked 57 times, promising he would never show them to anyone. She relented. He shared her naked photo with all his mates on social media. The girl tried to kill herself.


Accurate statistics for teenage suicide in South Africa are unavailable, but based on their interaction with more than 100,000 teenagers, Harrison and Sadleir say it is unequivocally on the rise. Most often it is prompted by bullying or embarrassment.

"Nudes are a social currency," says Sadleir. "Boys compete to get them and of course they show each other. It has become so normalised that if a girl does not send her 'boyfriend' a nude they will say 'You're prudish' or 'You're not into me'. These poor girls get put under immense pressure."

In this case the boy was identified and legal proceedings began. But too often the perpetrators hide behind fake identities or use anonymous portals. Sadleir shows me the feed of a young teenager. Messages from multiple sources call her "you ugly f***ing bitch" and worse. Some ask her to perform explicit sexual acts. Several tell her: "Go kill yourself." describes itself as "a social site that allows people who find you interesting to ask you anonymous questions so they can know you better". Your identity is public but the people who contact you are hidden.

In an interview, developer Vincent Mabuza said the cyberbullying on the platform had given him sleepless nights

It was developed by South African entrepreneur Vincent Mabuza in 2011. In a later interview, Mabuza said the cyberbullying on the platform had given him sleepless nights, but that shutting it down would not help because so many others offered the same service. Similar apps include, Sarahah, Stupid Chat and Curious Cat.

Yik Yak, an app that enabled anonymous sharing with those in close proximity, announced in April that it was shutting down. According to Business Insider: "The company faced problems with harassment and bullying in the app and never quite found a good way to combat it."

"About 60% to 70% of the kids we talk to are on," says Sadleir. "It's particularly popular with the younger girls, 12 to 16."

Harrison says teenagers are reluctant to admit that they use "They are starting to realise, because of the kind of content, that it's probably not the place they should admit to spending a lot of time on. But when you go onto their Instagram profiles, most of them have a link."

Sadleir recently asked a group of kids to explain why they wanted to be on "One little girl said, 'Because it's really nice when somebody says something good.' So it's worth being told 60 times you're a fat slut and go kill yourself, for that one time some random person you don't know says you're beautiful?"


Teenage self-esteem can be measured in megabytes. "Their whole self-worth is determined by how many people follow them on Instagram," says Sadleir.

But screen addiction is not limited to children. Harrison says teenagers often mirror their parents' behaviour.

"So many kids say they don't feel safe in a car because their parent is always on the phone or texting while driving," she says. "That's the model we are giving children."

The damage of digital overload can begin early. "From the age of two or younger, some children are spending so much time engaged with that technology that they are missing out on other critical developments," says Harrison. "The number of synapses in the brain increases exponentially until you're two. After two, you start whittling down the neural connections to what you really use. So if what you use most is a screen, those are the connections you're developing - at the expense of reading human emotions and facial expressions."

Screen addiction might be breeding a generation of Asperger's children. When they reach adolescence this can turn vicious.

"Children are getting smartphones far too young," says Sadleir. She blames this on social pressure. "If they are 11 and go to a top private school and you send them to school without a phone, they are socially excluded.

"Once they've got a phone they are being exposed to extreme content. They're not being educated and I think we just give them a lot of rope to hang themselves with."

Harrison points out that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and rational decision-making, is not fully developed in most people until the age of 25.

"A screen is totally dehumanising," she says. "You don't have to watch somebody cry, so the bullying is a thousand times worse than it ever was for previous generations. And kids have not got the ability to manage impulses or make the correct decision in a situation. They just can't do it, it's not their fault."

Not being able to exercise sound judgment does not wash in court. "In terms of being held accountable legally, the law is pretty strict on brain capacity," says Sadleir. "From the age of 14 you are deemed to have full capacity. And you can be sued civilly, alongside an adult, from the age of seven."


Lawsuits involving online defamation, infringements of privacy and harassment are increasing. In May, a Swiss court made history when it convicted and fined a man for liking Facebook comments deemed defamatory. In South Africa, a man was sued simply because he had been tagged in a defamatory post and had not objected.

Teenagers should be aware that digital footprints can harm their future lives and careers. In April, the UK's first youth police and crime commissioner, 17-year-old Paris Brown, resigned after complaints about derogatory tweets, some sent when she was just 14. And in June, 10 students accepted to Harvard had their admissions revoked after the university discovered they had participated in a Facebook group that shared offensive memes.

Companies like Facebook and Google are very careful about not establishing a jurisdiction here so that they can't be cited in a South African court case

When it comes to tracking down anonymous bullies and bigots, however, the law does not make things easy for victims.

"Companies like Facebook and Google are very careful about not establishing a jurisdiction here so that they can't be cited in a South African court case," says Sadleir.

The Protection from Harassment Act, which came into operation in South Africa in 2013, makes provision to get a protection order against an anonymous person. "But even if you have buy-in from all the regulatory bodies, it can take up to eight months to find out the IP addresses of people who have created fake accounts," says Sadleir. "So much damage can happen in that time."

This is why Harrison and Sadleir are on a crusade to teach children to manage their communications and reputations from an early age. They don't tell anyone to stay away from social media, but they would like to reduce its use as a lethal weapon.


Outraged by the suicide of a 12-year-old who had been cyber-bullied by schoolmates, 13-year-old Trisha Prabhu invented an app that would make teenagers think twice before posting hurtful messages. 

Prabhu's patented Rethink software uses an algorithm that flags anything potentially offensive before a message is posted online. As the user pushes 'send', the app asks: 'Are you sure you want to post this message?'

In trial runs, 93% of teenagers had second thoughts and did not send the offending message. There are 1.1million users in the US.

Now 17 and at high school in Illinois, Prabhu told US positive-news website NationSwell last week: 'Here we are, giving teenagers this incredible power to communicate as digital citizens. And quite frankly, they're not really equipped to make those decisions. There are severe consequences and lifelong scars when someone is bullied, and cyberspace compounds the effects.'

Prabhu has won multiple awards for Rethink, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Aristotle Award, the WebMD Health Hero Prodigy Award and the International Princess Diana Anti-Bullying Champion