Phyllis Kiama’s daughter is 13 years old. Although the family lives in the populous Nyayo Estate in Nairobi’s Embakasi, where, one would imagine, a girl her age would have numerous peers to socialise with, the teen rarely leaves the house.
Instead, she spends most of her time either on her mobile phone or her mother’s laptop. “I have encouraged her numerous times to get out more, but she is reluctant, saying that even if she were to go out she would have no one to talk to since her peers rarely go outside,” Kiama says.
And it is true, she says:“ My daughter and her friends spend most of their time on social media.”
One of the many apps the girl has downloaded is Likee, a platform where users can create and share short videos with the aid of diverse special effects, including AI beauty filters.
The app has amassed millions of followers worldwide, many of them just entering their teens.
A few weeks ago, Kiama decided to go through her daughter’s profile, only to find that an adult man had contacted her, writing, “It is good to connect with you …”
She was shocked but relieved to learn that the man was writing from Mexico, so her daughter was not in immediate danger from the man.
“The worst fear for a parent, especially one with a daughter, is that she could fall prey to sex predators. I had to sit her down and explain the danger that comes with connecting with strangers on social media, especially those much older than she is, as well as the dos and don’ts that she should follow when using this platform,” Kiama says.
In the heat of the moment, she considered taking her daughter’s phone away and banning her from using her laptop, but immediately realising the futility of such an action.
TikTok is another popular video-sharing app that is popular with the young generation.
Its open messaging system makes it possible for anyone, including adults, to message the youngsters.
Early this month, the app was put under investigation in the UK following concern over how it handles personal data of users under the age of 13.
According to a report in The Guardian, a British newspaper, the inquiry explained that the app was potentially violating the general data protection regulation (GDPR), which “requires the company to provide different services and different protection for children”.
GDPR is the primary law regulating how companies protect EU citizens' personal data and was effected in 2018.
Social media networks are here to stay, and they have opened more avenues through which children can be preyed on, or subjected to adult content such as pornography.
The question then begs: What is the situation like in Kenya in regard to policing social media spaces where minors are?
Mr Anthony Muiyuro, a cybersecurity expert, says protecting children online is not easy since the nature of child online abuse is subtle, and the early warning signs of abuse not so obvious.
“There is also the fact that children now have access to a wide array of online platforms unknown to their parents that can be used to carry out online abuse.
"Children engage in private ‘Chat’ conversations which, without parental supervision, can unwittingly expose them to a worldwide audience, potentially increasing the risk of harm,” Muiyuro, the Cybersecurity Lead at Ernst and Young, observes.
Policing such social media platforms can therefore pose a challenge since some of these platforms have not been designed with surveillance in mind.
He notes that while Kenya has taken notable steps to curb the abuse and misuse of digital platforms, there still exist opportunities to step up monitoring and surveillance of such platforms to ensure that children and minors are protected when they log onto the internet.
Policing these media spaces also has to be done at a micro level and requires some intentional measures, such as introducing filtering or blocking mechanisms, or controlling the degree of access to the internet.
Kenya passed the Computer Misuse and Cybercrime Act in 2018.
It covers offences such as publication of fake news, pornography, cyberterrorism, cybersquatting, (where an individual registers names as internet domains, in the hope of reselling them at a profit) and child pornography. But, Muiyuro says this is not enough.
“It does not, for instance, explicitly address children’s online security, except the entry on child pornography under Section 24.
For instance, the Act requires websites to get parental consent before collecting or using a child's personal information, such as name, address or phone number.
The same law also prohibits a site from asking a minor to provide more personal information than necessary to play a game or enter a contest.
But while parents and guardians have a role to play in protecting their children when they go online, various reports say that a big percentage of parents and others who should be guiding children under their care on how to safely navigate the internet are tech illiterate.
In fact, it is the children who teach them how to navigate the internet.
A report titled "Child Online Protection: A Practical Guide for Children, Parents and Professionals Working with Children", prepared by the Department of Children Services, Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, says:
“It is children who teach their parents how to operate technological devices or search for information on the internet. Most parents or guardians are not only unaware of the internet risks; they don’t know where to report should a child be abused online.”
Another report, "Safe Online, Safe Onland" by internet and digital literacy advocacy organisations MediaNet Works and the Internet Society, notes that today’s children are at a higher risk of exploitation online than before.
It cites risks such as social media addiction, abduction, recruitment to criminal gangs, radicalisation, pornography, and cyberbullying.
“You would be surprised at the number of people, including minors, who freely post personal information such as e-mail addresses, mobile numbers even home and school addresses online, which would make it easier for sex predators, traffickers or radical groups to contact and trace them,” Muiyuro says.
Parents can use a variety of online to block their children from adult content.
Also, many internet service providers have parental control options, but you can go a step further and get software that blocks access to certain sites and restricts your child from sending personal information online.
There are also programmes that monitor your child’s online activity.
Muiyuro notes that the Communications Authority of Kenya has begun outreach initiatives such as the Child Online protection, “Be the Cop’” campaign, but they should be speeded up and publicised.