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Marcia Forbes | What future for Caribbean children online?

Published:Monday | June 20, 2016 | 6:09 AMMarcia Forbes

Caribbean youth want a better life and are eager to migrate to find it. Meanwhile, many escape via life online. A mobile phone is the most prized possession of many Caribbean youth.

As far as technological innovation goes, “the digital economy in ... the Caribbean leaves much to be desired, characterised by a general lag in quality behind other parts of the world and large variations within the region.” But despite this lag, “cyber risks are increasingly becoming a concern ... ". (2016, Cybersecurity Report, OAS & IDB) It is awareness of the manifestations of this risk that led to data collection by the Office of the Children’s Advocate (OCA) in Jamaica.

One of the many Child Month activities was the release of research findings on youth and social media by the OCA. They should make the entire survey available to those who would like to delve deeper, as I’ve requested. It is not always easy to precisely interpret the meanings of certain information presented graphically in their ‘Be Social, Be Smart Social Media Guide’.

In a country where household Internet penetration is notoriously low at less than 20 per cent but mobile phone penetration is about 110 per cent, it would appear that almost 90 per cent of the just over half a million 11- to 17-year-old Jamaican students surveyed, reported owning a smartphone or other device with access to data service or WiFi. If this is really so, the issue of a digital divide may not be as pressing as some of us may think. Young people are getting online. What they do there is another matter.

The almost 90 per cent of Jamaican students who reported having Internet access via a mobile phone or other device is particularly impressive within the context of  the urban-rural distribution of the 51 schools that participated in this study. In fact, just over a half of them (50.5 per cent) were rural schools.

Social Media Usage – Content Creation vs Consumption

Although 67.4 per cent of respondents had a presence on social media, an additional 19 per cent indicated they had a presence ‘sometimes’. This suggests that a whopping 86.4 per cent are online, if only via social media sites. This is corroborated by the 82.7 per cent who admitted to having shared videos of themselves online and suggests that Jamaican youths are not simply downloading but also uploading content. These findings augur well for the creative use of digital technologies by youth. They are creating content, not only consuming.

Usage of YouTube (79.3 per cent), Facebook (75.1 per cent) and a growing number on Instagram (51.9 per cent) lead among social media sites. I suspect that more recently collected data would show Jamaican youth turning to Snapchat in numbers beyond the 28 per cent in this survey.

Almost a half (46.1%) of those on YouTube use this site daily, compared to 39.6 per cent of those on Facebook and 30.9 per cent of those on Instagram. It would be instructive to see the breakout of uploads using the measure of frequency – daily, every few days, monthly, hardly ever and never - established by the survey questionnaire and including uploads and downloads as measured in seconds, minutes and hours. That would really help us to delve into the matter of content creation versus content consumption.

The Real Rub!

It is their susceptibility to child abuse via online predators that primarily concerns the OCA. In one Child Month activity, senior policewomen told real-life horror stories of how paedophiles and porn addicts track Jamaican children, especially the girls. In another session, the immediate past minister of youth, Lisa Hanna, highlighted that ‘Jamaica School Girls’ is among the most searched title via pornhub.com.

With the OCA’s survey revealing that 84.5 per cent of respondents had posted a photo of themselves online, 61.2 posted their birth date, 56.5 per cent their real name and 51.9 per cent the name of their school, it becomes clear to see how easily Jamaican children and youth make it possible to be stalked, not just online but tracked in real life as well. The majority of them admit to face-to-face meet-ups, 63.7 per cent of males and 53.2 per cent of females, have done so with people that they had only interacted with online.

One way of helping to address this growing issue of safety online is through proper parenting. It is not easy, but is an essential first step in online literacy and child protection. This is something that is required throughout the entire Caribbean because, as previous studies have shown, there are many similarities among the children and youth of this region.