My Gulf compatriot of the Great Betel nut Debate and Rugby Union fame, Ratu Sirvese of Gerehu struck a forlorn figure when I passed by his buai market earlier this week.
So serious was his demeanor that I felt compelled to stop and enquire as to the sort of predicament he was facing. Seeing my enquiring look, he volunteered that he was extremely concerned about the kind of pages his nephews were accessing on the popular social network site, Facebook.
A self-confessed Facebook addict himself, Sirvese spends much of his day while vending, and a good amount of money on data credits, surfing the various pages he is a member of, as well as checking up on status updates from family members in Iokea and along the banks of the mighty Miaru River down to Lockyer’s old haunts in south Brisbane.
The various status updates give him a sense of closeness to his widely scattered family, offering bits of information on their overall wellbeing, as well the little shenanigans his younger nephews get up to every now and then.
|Children need supervision when online. Image by www.guardian.co.uk|
What concerns him most is the plethora of “downright scandalous pages” (as he puts it) available online, and easily accessible to children under the legal age of 18 years.
Fortunately for concerned individuals such as Sirvese and other equally concerned parents who have access to their children’s Facebook accounts, the site allows online “friends” to receive feeds or notifications which tell of another's recent online activities on Facebook.
This ranges from status updates, posting of comments and when one joins or accesses a page or group. Sirvese accepts that there are many groups that allow for positive social interaction on Facebook however, his concern was those with more sinister motives.
There has been a steady proliferation of PNG “confession” and “I Dare You To” pages, as well as those that boast of containing some of the country’s “hottest” images and short video files.
These sites have also come under the scrutiny of more practical and acceptable pages such as Talking Edge and Sharp Talk and the various regional and provincial discussion forums for their “immoral” content, however there seems to be little that can be done to stop the growth and spread of these pages.
The inability for Facebook regulators to determine the true age of members when they initially create an account allows many children to access these sites. Much to their moral detriment.
Sirvese’s revelation and concern is also shared by many others throughout the country as well as has been evident in the number of “letters to the editor” received decrying this growing problem.
Some feel that with the relative ease with which children can access portable file storage (flash) drives, and the ability to download and transfer files without adult supervision, a single short video or image file can end up being copied to half a school’s population in less than a day.
This assessment was corroborated by national academic and social commentator Bernard Yegiora in response to a post in the popular PNG Attitude blog concerning social network porn sites.
“There are porn groups where nude pictures are uploaded, sex talk groups, gossip groups and the list is endless,” Mr Yegiora said.
He further related an instance where he saw the posting of a picture of “two Grade 8 students from (school named) kissing and fondling each other” while still in their distinctively colored school uniforms.
Mr Yegiora said that the online community was now in a “crisis situation” although regulation of online activity would continue to prove difficult.
The issue of child access to pornography has been an ongoing concern since the World Wide Web emerged in the early 1990s. a report by Elizabeth Kaufman of the Lyndon B Johnson School of Public Affairs in the United States found that by the year 2003, there were “over 100,000 pornographic Web sites accessible for free and another 400,000 for-pay sites.”
That was a decade ago.
Kaufman continued, stating that the most disturbing feature of online pornography was that “unlike pornographic magazines, movies, and adult book stores, online pornography is easily accessible to children. Without even searching it out, pornographic material is present in pop-up ads, e-mails, bulletin boards, chat rooms, and can be accidentally found on mistyped or innocuously named Web addresses.”
Increasing numbers of children having access to social network sites such as Facebook has led to more comprehensive moves by governments worldwide to have increased national safeguards against child access to online pornography and its related scourge, online sex predators.
In the United States, “The Communications Decency Act (CDA) was passed as part of the Telecommunication Act of 1996. The CDA criminalized the knowing transmission of ‘obscene’ or ‘indecent’ communications to children under 18 years of age,” Kaufman reports.
“Under the CDA, online pornography providers had to take ‘good faith, reasonable, effective and appropriate’ efforts to prevent children from accessing their Web sites, including requiring proof of age of all users prior to accessing the pornographic material”
And with an estimated 34 percent of youngsters in the UK aged between 9 and 12 years opening Facebook accounts, concerned parent groups have been created to help parents and children understand the dangers of using Facebook.
Forbes magazine contributor and social media strategist Kelly Clay recently told of Robyn Spoto, a mother of young children and President of Mamabear, “a company which makes an application of the same name that serves the specific purpose to help parents have this dialogue with children. It then also enables parents to monitor the activity of their children on Facebook to ensure safety.”
Ironically though, Facebook’s own Terms of Service provides in its Safety provisions that while their regulators and administrators will endeavor to “keep Facebook safe,” there is no guarantee that the site would remain so.
Members are therefore discouraged from posting “content that: is hate speech, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.”
Facebook administrators also specify in their Registration and Account Security provisions that, amongst other prerequisites, members “will not use Facebook if” under the age of 13 years.
Closer to home, the Australian Government’s Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy provides some handy tips on its website for parents to use if concerned about their children’s online activities. These include the following:
“Know what your children are doing online - make sure they know how to stay safe and encourage them to tell you if they come across anything suspicious or if anybody says or does something that makes them feel uncomfortable or threatened.”
The website also advises parents to “know the technologies your children use.”
A piece of advice particularly helpful for Papua New Guinean parents who are more often than not less technologically savvy as their children would be.
The benefit of understanding and being able to use the kind of information and communication technology gadget children use is obvious. Parents are then able to access online accounts and monitor activities.
Tips on countering the negative consequences of sexual predators, inappropriate content on sites and pages, and cyber bullying are also provided, along with computer applications parents can have installed on their children’s personal computers to guard against such vile practices.
Papua New Guinean parents who are concerned about this negative aspect of the social media phenomenon and the improving information and communication industry in the country can access this information on the Stay Smart Online website (http://www.staysmartonline.gov.au/). Although it is tailored specifically for Australian users, the safety tips provided can work universally.
Going off on a slight tangent (for the purpose of our discussion anyway), Kelly Clay asks that “as it’s absolutely critical parents are actively involved with their kids’ online life, the necessity to have discussions about online behavior – especially at an early age – begs the question: Have societal discussions about kids’ online behavior become just as critical to the health and safety of children as those about their offline behavior?
With changing trends and technologies, familial and social interactions and relations in modern PNG have changed. There is a growing number of independent, urban youth who do not place much significance to respect for elders.
Nor do they value submission to, and observance of parental guidance. Firms hands are called for in such situations.
An unsupervised minor with unrestricted access to a myriad of online content is a moral disaster in waiting.
Sirvese helps provide a firm hand at home for his nephews and nieces, and often has to discipline wayward children who step outside of their home’s set and expected standards.
What he does is no different from accepted practices in societies throughout Papua New Guinea. The firm hand goes along with the gentle voice of reason.
Sirvese wants more people to use that firm hand and gentle voice of reason, as well as paying more attention and interest in the life, habits and online activities of children.
Parents must act now to safeguard their children's online wellbeing.