The Mxit scapegoat

Once again the media and parents are taking aim at Mxit after a teenager disappeared for a few days in what seems to have been a planned “outing”. It also transpires that the teenager is/was a Mxit user and may have met up with someone she met using the service. Unfortunately the media has fixated on Mxit’s peripheral involvement and is portraying it as a den of iniquity and insecurity where children are routinely picked up by sexual predators.

This isn’t the first time Mxit has been targeted like this. I conducted an interview with Mxit’s Herman Heunis about 2 years ago for the chilipod podcast (the podcast came to an end in late 2007 or thereabouts) which is worth reposting here because it deals, in part, with the allegations laid against the service:

Mxit has maintained an online safety guide for parents for quite some time now (although it could do with a revamp – it isn’t very user friendly). I may be wrong but I believe this guide was available around the time of my interview in August 2007. Unless the service has changed fundamentally since my interview with Herman, the service is built around anonymity. Users’ names, phone numbers and other identifiers are not available publicly and users are required to approve friend requests they receive before other users can interact with them. The security risk is the user him/herself, not the service. Although there are safeguards built into the service, education about the risks other users pose is vital and this is where the responsibility shifts to parents and to teachers.

Parents and teachers have a responsibility to educate children about the risks involved in using social networks. This applies to all online social networks, not just to Mxit. It is also important to highlight the value of using privacy filters and security measures that are baked into these services. It is misguided to simply give children access to these services and expect the service itself to police what they do with the service. Parents absolutely must take an active interest in what their children are doing with their phones and online and if they don’t understand the technology, they have a responsibility to educate themselves about these services. Childline’s provincial director, Linda Naidoo was quoted recently in IOL:

Childline provincial director Linda Naidoo said parents needed to start engaging in the latest technology so that they could gather knowledge on how to protect their children.

“Offenders are always a step ahead when it comes to tactics in luring children because they are so vulnerable. Teen chat zones are a huge concern when it comes to child safety. Therefore parents need to get on MXit and find out how it operates so that they can better monitor what their children are up to in the technological world,” she said.

This phenomenon is not new. It has been around for about as long as children and teenagers have had access to online chat rooms. The simple fact is that the younger generation is more technology savvy than the older generation and children today seem to take to the Web far quicker than their parents. This makes it even more important that parents familiarise themselves with these services as well as the terms that govern those services. They need to understand the risks, educate their children and, if necessary, moderate their children’s access to these services.

(Image credit: Hello Operator by Andrew Stawarz licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution No Derivatives 2.0 license)

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