Digital content is so potentially dangerous, says Emma Sadleir, a leading expert on social media law, that if she had her way, anyone under 13 would be barred from using smartphones and social media.
“Digital content is dangerous content. Once something is digital it is out of your control,” says Ms Sadleir, who spoke to parents at Wynberg Girls’ High School last week about how to protect their children from a minefield of online hazards.
According to Ms Sadleir there is no shallow end to the internet: once children are online, they are online.
“Even if it is just on chat groups within a game, they are still in WhatsApp groups! They are going to come across dodgy people and they are going to come across inappropriate material, so teach them the skills on what to do when that happens,” she says.
Ms Sadleir’s book, Selfies, Sexts and Smartphones: A teenager’s online survival guide, covers all of the major issues teenagers face in the digital age, including cyber bullying, sexting, addiction, internet safety, porn, anxiety, depression, privacy and reputation, and it does so within a South African context.
She walked parents through the legal consequences of online behaviour, looking after your reputation, and everything else related to parenting somebody in the online world.
For a happy, rewarding but safe online life, Ms Sadleir says parents should include the law in the discussion with their children.
“The aim is not to scare these kids. It is really to make sure they understand that if you are the victim of online harm, there is almost certainly something in the law that can help you.”
The Cybercrimes Act, for one, offers some protection against new forms of criminal activity. It was signed into law last year and several parts of the act took effect from December 1.
“It criminalises a lot,” says Ms Sadleir. “Password abuse, threats and incitement, hate speech, unlawful access to devices, hacking, extortion, sextortion, fraud, forgery uttering… if it falls under the cyber world, it falls under the Cybercrimes Act.”
However, children need to be made aware that their actions in cyberspace have legal consequences too, she says.
“What a lot of people don’t understand is that the age of criminal capacity and the age of civil capacity are very young.”
The age of civil capacity, when anyone can sue and be sued, is 7 in South Africa.
“Criminal capacity is the age at which you can be arrested and legally held responsible for a crime that you may commit. The minimum age for criminal capacity has been increased from 10 to 12. Now if you are 12 or 13, there will be an assessment. But from 14, it is not even a discussion,” Ms Sadleir says.
Digital content needs only one other person to see it for laws like the Cybercrimes Act to apply. This means “if what I am saying on my phone has been seen by one other person, in the eyes of the law, we treat that as if it has been seen on the front page of a newspaper”.
According to Ms Sadleir, it doesn’t matter if you are the originator of that content or whether you just passed it on. Every single person in the chain of publishing of illegal content can be held responsible. If you have the ability to stop something from being published and you don’t, you are legally responsible for it too. This includes an inappropriate post made by someone else on your social media page that you can delete and you don’t. While you can’t be held responsible if you haven’t seen it, this innocence-of-dissemination defence falls away once you have seen it or have been notified and asked to take it down.
“It is not worth it to be in these big WhatsApp groups, especially to be in groups with people you don’t know. If you can’t keep on top of these groups, get off them,” Ms Sadleir says. “If you are in a WhatsApp group and there is something that is super dodgy going on in the WhatsApp group, you have two options available to you: leave the group or say something.”
Another trend among teens is using social media for activism, but this too can lead to problems, says Ms Sadleir. “I love that kids are using social media for activism, but I saw a lot of cancel culture, of naming and shaming kids.” In South Africa, it is illegal to name and shame any minor.
She also advises parents to talk to their children about sexting. “Sextortion is a very big thing,” she warns, adding: “Strictly speaking, if a teenager takes a photo of themselves naked or creates that kind of content, they are creating child pornography. Which is absurd.”
She has been championing the decriminalising of consensual sex between teens. However, as the law stands, she explains, it leads to victim blaming. “If you go to the police and say this person created a video or has sent it to somebody and it has now been circulated, they will say two things: ‘Show me the video,’ and ‘Why did you take this picture? We need to arrest you,’ and sometimes they do.” Children need to be made aware of the risks at stake.“
Ms Sadleir recommends using the “billboard test” before you post anything online.
“Imagine a huge photograph of your face on a billboard next to your name, next to the name of the school you attend. And then imagine this billboard is next to the busiest road. What you are about to let exist in digital format, you must ask yourself if you would put it on the billboard. Because the internet doesn’t forget.”