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10/11/2023

Academics at Nelson Mandela University have launched a novel Grade R Cybersafety Project, to create awareness among young children about cyberbullying, inappropriate content and “stranger danger”.

 

Nomfundo Khumalo and Professors Noluxolo Gcaza and Kerry-Lynn Thomson.

Believed to be the first of its kind, the project entailed the creation of a Cybersmart Squad, where cartoon characters based on the Big Five animals in South Africa, “teach young children how to how to interact responsibly online to become good digital citizens,” according to Professor Kerry-Lynn Thomson, Director of the University’s Centre for Research in Information and Cyber Security (CRICS).

The project uses age-appropriate content, including animated videos and worksheets, to teach children about cybersafety in a fun, interactive way.

The project, which was launched at the University on 9 November, is a result of a collaboration between Prof Thomson and Prof Noluxolo Gcaza, of CRICS in the Faculty of Engineering, the Built Environment and Technology, and digital animator, Nomfundo Khumalo from the Department of Media and Communication in the Faculty of Humanities.

Prof Thomson said most existing cybersafety awareness initiatives in South Africa and globally, are aimed at older children who are required to, for example, read content and take quizzes in an attempt to raise cybersecurity awareness.

“We turned our attention to Grade R learners – who may or may not be online yet – to focus on and encourage the behaviours and attitudes of good digital citizenship.” The Cybersmart Squad is based on the Big Five animals in South Africa – Lethu the Lion, Esihle the Elephant, Lily the Leopard, Ryno the Rhino and Babalo the Buffalo.

Each of the characters has a ‘superpower’ – Courage, Kindness, Safety, Respect and Honesty, respectively, which should extend from the ‘real playground’ to the ‘digital playground’, too,” explained Prof Thomson. Through these ‘superpowers’, the Cybersmart Squad aims to teach Grade R children about the ‘superpowers’, or characteristics, which could help guard them against cyberthreats, such as cyberbullying.

Prof Thomson referred to a global survey by YouGov, which revealed that South Africa has the fourth highest rate of cyberbullying worldwide.

“The survey found that one out of every five teens falls prey to cyberbullying and 84% of classmates know of someone who has been victimised. Against this backdrop, it is crucial to ensure that children are prepared to navigate the online environment safely and responsibly.”

Cyberbullying takes several forms:

sharing photos or videos of an individual in a way that is meant to embarrass or humiliate them;

harassing – a pattern of aggressive, unwelcomed and often repeated actions intended to distress or harm someone in an online environment;

excluding – intentionally and repeatedly leaving someone out of online activities, conversations or social groups with the intent to harm, hurt or isolate them, and

outing – the act of revealing or disclosing someone’s personal or sensitive information without their consent, particularly information that may be related to their family, personal life or experiences.

“Cyberbullying often leads to emotional distress, with victims experiencing fear, anxiety, depression, anger and sadness – and it can erode a child's self-esteem and self-worth, causing them to doubt their abilities and self-image,” said Prof Thomson. Furthermore, it could affect a child’s academic performance.

This is where the Cybersmart Squad come in with their ‘superpowers’, based on the characteristics of being a good digital citizen, said Prof Gcaza.

“The Cybersmart Squad demonstrates how each of the ‘superpowers’ can be used to help address various online threats, including exposure to inappropriate content, ‘stranger danger’ and cyberbullying. In the context of cyberbullying, these ‘superpowers’ promote empathy and support for others.”

Children who exhibit Courage are more likely to report incidents of cyberbullying to trusted adults or teachers, making it possible to address and intervene in such situations. “Children who prioritise Kindness are less likely to engage in bullying behaviours and are more likely to support and stand up for those who are being cyberbullied, creating a positive and supportive online environment.”

Prof Gcaza explained that Safety teaches children how to protect themselves and their personal information online, reducing the likelihood of becoming victims of cyberbullying. Children who prioritise Respect are less likely to engage in cyberbullying behaviour, as they understand the impact of their actions on others and appreciate the significance of respectful online communication.

“Honesty encourages children to be truthful and transparent in their online interactions. It teaches them not to engage in harmful behaviours, such as spreading false information or participating in cyberbullying.”

Prof Gcaza said that by incorporating these ‘superpowers’ into this initiative, “children learn not only how to protect themselves but also how to contribute to a more positive and respectful online community.” The superpowers instil values and behaviours that discourage cyberbullying, encourage empathy and kindness, and empower children to take a stand against online harassment.

The initiative also educates children on the importance of open communication with trusted adults by reporting cyberbullying incidents and content they may stumble upon that is not age-appropriate. “This empowers them to seek help when needed.”

The team is running a pilot at Beachwood Pre-Primary in Nelson Mandela Bay – with the aim of involving more schools in 2024, while the Department of Basic Education has expressed an interest in the project. “Ideally, we believe that the integration of The Cybersmart Squad into the South African Grade R curricula would be beneficial for all the Grade R learners in the country,” said Prof Thomson. 

Contact information
Director: Communication & Marketing
Tel: 0415043057
Primarashni.Gower@mandela.ac.za