The Member of Parliament for the Effutu Constituency, Alexander Afenyo-Markin, has called for a comprehensive Online Child Protection policy to regulate the use of social media among children.
In a statement on the floor of Parliament on Friday, February 17, the Deputy Majority Leader said the “present and future of our children are in grave peril” if efforts and measures are not scaled up to protect them from the dangerous hazards of early social media use and consumption.
He has thus recommended that Parliament direct the Ministries of Interior, Communications and Digitalisation and Gender, Children and Social Protection to expedite work on developing a comprehensive Online Child Protection Policy for adoption and implementation within the immediate future.
He also wants Parliament to lead an amendment to the Cyber Security Act 2020 to impose an obligation on the Cyber Security Authority to submit SEPARATE bi-annual reports for consideration and subsequent action on detailed measures it has taken to specifically safeguard Ghanaian children from the harmful effects of Social Media use and consumption.
Finally, the MP has also called on Parliament to draft and pass a new law, through the efforts of private members, prohibiting Ghanaian children under 16 from irresponsibly consuming and or using Social Media.
In that law, Mr Afenyo-Markin says offending parents or guardians –– through whose negligence and or acquiescence children consume or use harmful Social Media content or become owners of Social Media accounts ¬–– must face punitive fines.
STATEMENT ON THE FLOOR OF PARLIAMENT BY ALEXANDER KWAMENA AFENYO-MARKIN, DEPUTY MAJORITY LEADER AND MP FOR EFFUTU, ON THE NEED FOR GHANA TO SCALE UP EFFORTS TO CLAMP DOWN ON EARLY SOCIAL MEDIA USE BY GHANAIAN CHILDREN
1. Right Honourable Speaker, on the authority of the permission you have so gracefully granted me this fateful day, I rise to make a crucial statement on Social Media consumption among children and the alarming social and technological cankers it has induced, threatening the immediate and future safety of our children and, possibly, future generations.
2. To begin with, Mr. Speaker, it will be helpful to provide a working definition of the technical term “Social Media”. According to Investopedia, the term Social Media concerns “a computer-based technology that facilitates the sharing of ideas, thoughts, and information through virtual networks and communities.” It explains that Social Media “is internet-based and gives users quick electronic communication of content, such as personal information, documents, videos, and photos.”
3. Social Media users or consumers typically engage with various platforms through a tablet or a smartphone with web-based software, applications, or a computer. Examples of major Social Media platforms, particularly those in intense use in Ghana, are Tik Tok, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube. Usually, Social Media platforms allow for user-personalised profiles, generated content and subscriptions. Often these platforms require that a person wishing to create a user-personalised profile must be at least 13 years old.
SOCIAL MEDIA EXPLOSION AND ASSOCIATED DANGERS
4. Mr. Speaker, it is estimated that over 4.5 billion people around the globe use Social Media as of October 2021. Other estimates published by business.com suggest that Social Media use has increased sharply since the Covid-19 pandemic. Let me hasten to concede that it is indeed the case that Social Media sites can serve as valuable platforms for both adults and children to acquire crucial knowledge, learn new and vital skills, consume valuable news content, and even earn a living through lawful Social Media marketing and content creation.
5. To quote my respected colleague lawmaker and Minister for Communications and Digitalisation, Hon. Ursula Owusu-Ekuful, “The internet revolution has transformed how we… access information and is an increasingly valuable resource for children and young people to learn, socialise, innovate and connect.”
6. However, the unfortunate reality is that the internet is not always helpful. Indeed, Social Media sites on the internet have become very dangerous and destructive tools and platforms used by perverts belonging to the evil fringes of society to target, victimise, radicalise, and destroy the present and future of innocent or curious or unsuspecting children.
7. One study identified some of the main negative implications of the use of Social Media by school children as: “distraction of pupils’ attention from their studies, frequent use of Pidgin English as well as unnecessary fashion consciousness.” However, more deadly dangers are flowing from Social Media consumption by children that demand urgent attention. According to Australia’s Raising Children Network, these include: (a) exposure to inappropriate or upsetting content, like mean, aggressive, violent or sexual comments or images (b) uploading inappropriate content, like embarrassing or provocative or nude photos or videos of themselves or others (c) sharing personal information with strangers – for example, images, date of birth, location or address (d) cyberbullying (e) exposure to too much-targeted advertising and marketing, including those meant for adults (f) and exposure to data breaches like having their data sold on to other organisations.
8. To use a translated Ghanaian proverb, many parents and/or guardians “have slept in their beds. Unfortunately, however, their legs are languishing or lurking far beyond the confines of our bedrooms.”
9. A few official figures on the scale of the problem around the world and in Ghana should suffice. For example, Mr. Speaker, a UNICEF report released in 2021 revealed that globally 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 13 boys suffer sexual abuse or exploitation through electronic media before their 18th birthday. The reports stated, “The scale, complexity and danger of online facilitated child sexual abuse and exploitation is escalating, with technology enabling new modes of child abuse to emerge such as the live streaming of sexual assaults of children and sexual extortion of children, often to coerce a child to take part in the production of child sexual abuse material under threat.”
10. Much earlier, in 2018, another research titled “Risks and Opportunities Related to Child Online Practices” which interviewed some two thousand children between the ages of 9 and 17 and up to one thousand parents or caregivers across the country’s various regions, also returned a disturbing result. Although the report found that seven out of 10 young persons use the internet for learning, a troubling four out of 10 children or adolescents have contacted strangers they had never met in person. Also, two out of 10 children or adolescents have met persons face to face that they only first met on the internet.
11. Further, around three in 10 children or adolescents reported that they had experienced bothersome or upsetting incidents or things online. Worst still, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the United States of America has also found that over 13,000 images and videos featuring the sexual abuse of children were either accessed and or uploaded from within Ghana in the year 2020 alone.
12. A more disturbing statistic is that only two out of ten parents or guardians expressed confidence that their children or wards could cope with things that bothered or upset them online. Also, around three out of ten, which translates to 28% of parents or guardians interviewed, said they were confident in supporting their wards or children to cope with upsetting things online.
13. Clearly, these facts and figures demand a robust response from all of us as parents (first of all) and lawmakers to put in place measures to protect or rescue our children. In making this statement, I am well aware that in 2020 this House passed the Cyber Security Act 2020 (Act 1038), setting up the Cyber Security Authority under section 2 and empowering it to, among other things, ensure the safety of children online. The Act, under Section 97, defines a child to mean “a person below the age of eighteen years.” The same section defines “cybercrime” to mean “the use of cyberspace, information technology or electronic facilities to commit a crime.”
14. Under Sections 62-67 of the same Act, this House criminalised abuses of children online. The prohibitions include the production, viewing and distribution of materials featuring the sexual abuse of children. Other prohibitions concern online grooming of children, cyberstalking a child and sextortion, which occurs when someone threatens to distribute a person’s confidential and sensitive material if the person does not furnish them with images of a sexual nature, sexual favours, or money. Upon conviction, a person can face many years in jail.
NEED FOR URGENT ACTION
15. Mr. Speaker, the facts documented in this statement should lead us to one conclusion only: that the present and future of our children are in grave peril if we do not scale up efforts and measures to protect them from the dangerous hazards of early Social Media use and consumption. Accordingly, permit me, Mr. Speaker, to recommend the following urgent steps to help protect our future leaders.
16. Firstly, this Parliament must firmly direct the Ministries of 1) Interior, 2) Communications and Digitalisation 3) Gender, Children and Social Protection to expedite work on developing a comprehensive Online Child Protection Policy for adoption and implementation within the immediate future.
17. Secondly, Parliament must lead an amendment to the Cyber Security Act 2020 to impose an obligation on the Cyber Security Authority to submit SEPARATE bi-annual reports to this House for consideration and subsequent action on detailed measures it has taken to specifically safeguard Ghanaian children from the harmful effects of Social Media use and consumption.
18. Thirdly, this House must draft and pass a new law, through the efforts of private members, prohibiting Ghanaian children under 16 from irresponsibly consuming and or using Social Media. In that law, offending parents or guardians –– through whose negligence and or acquiescence children consume or use harmful Social Media content or become owners of Social Media accounts ¬–– must face punitive fines. Liability for the offence will be strict, and it is enough that a person under 16 is seen consuming Social Media or using or opening a prohibited Social Media account.
THE ROLE OF PARENTS
19. While I pray for this House to consider my proposals and act on them, there are self-help measures that we, as parents, can adopt to protect our children. For example, and as proposed elsewhere, we MUST:
a) Have regular and truthful discussions with our children about how predators may attempt to befriend them online;
b) Serve as a haven for our children to report or discuss the importance of immediately reporting abusive or uncomfortable conversations they have online or everything concerning anything inappropriate that they have been asked to do online;
c) Critically examine our children’s online profiles as frequently as possible to know precisely the content they generate and or post, the people they follow, and the online friends who either comment on their posts or send messages;
d) Conduct regular inventory on social networks and apps to guarantee that their respective privacy settings are locked on the most restrictive levels;
e) Have conversations with our children about the dangers of sharing inappropriate or intimate videos or photos with anyone online;
f) Monitor the digital activities or footprints or trails of our children online;
g) Enquire regularly about the apps they use, the content they consume, and whom they talk or chat with online;
h) Recruit safe and law-abiding professionals to teach our children about safe ways of searching the web for helpful information;
i) Install, where appropriate, adequate parental controls crafted to “block risky sites, filter inappropriate content, and help parents set screen limits.” Indeed, we as parents must be quick to check intermittently on the home screens of our children to ensure they are not staying in dangerous cyberspaces;
j) And impose limits on our children’s screen time and set phone curfews to prevent our children from having late-night conversations online;
20. Also, the fact that our children attend online classes does not mean they are safe. Therefore, we must keep a keen eye on them and monitor what they do online by regularly reviewing their computer browser history. Further, we must periodically speak with relevant authorities in their schools to know the safety protocols used to protect pupils while they use library computers or ICT labs.
21. More importantly, it is also crucial that we promptly inform law enforcement officers, especially the Cyber Crime Unit of the Ghana Police Service and the Cyber Security Authority, the moment any child is threatened or abused online.
22. To conclude, Mr. Speaker, there is certainly no way to avoid all the risks that come with children using the web or online applications. The bitter truth is that there will always be evil men and women finding sneaky ways to weaponise many of the internet’s bountiful opportunities and use them to destroy innocent, curious, or unsuspecting children.
23. As a nation, we cannot throw our hands in the air. We must confront the problem by taking proactive steps, including formulating appropriate policies and creating responsive legal frameworks to tame or defeat such evil minds. The making of this statement is one small effort in that direction. As parents, it offers us an opportunity to appreciate some of the risks our children face online, take relevant and timely action to reduce the risks, and do everything within our power as parents to give our children the tools they need to cope with the hazards that inevitably come with an online presence.
24. Before resuming my seat, Mr. Speaker, I pray that you lead this House to adequately respond to the dangers I have highlighted here by referring this statement to a joint Committee made of the Committees on Gender, Children, and Social Protection, and Communication and Digitalisation for consideration and a report that will guide subsequent legislation and policy response.
25. Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for permitting me to make this important statement. Equally, I thank my colleagues for indulging me.