BMR study reveals disturbing findings on online sexual grooming
and exposure of school learners to pornographic material.
The Youth Research Unit (YRU) of the Bureau of Market Research (BMR) within the College of Economic Management Sciences (CEMS) at the University of South Africa (Unisa) recently conducted a ground breaking Internet safety survey among 1 500 secondary school learners in Gauteng. This study follows a series of YRU research projects that aim to establish the usage and impact of Information Communication Technology on the lives of young South Africans. The Gauteng study in particular focuses on the online behaviour and risks experienced by secondary school learners when engaging with the Internet and social networking sites.
Access to Internet and Social Networking Sites (SNS)
The YRU research study highlights that a majority (97.7%) of learners who participated in the study have access to the Internet and 95.7% are registered members of various SNS. These findings reveal that secondary school learners in Gauteng are embracing the continuous developments of ICT, especially the use of SNS. However, the BMR findings also reveal that the benefits of using information technology are often accompanied by various forms of exploitation, particularly online sexual grooming (cyber grooming) and exposure to sexually explicit material (pornography).
Online sexual grooming
Cybergrooming is defined in the BMR study as a process whereby an individual befriends a young person for online sexual contact, sometimes with the involvement of webcams that can allow ‘sharing’ of the exploitation among networks of child sex abusers, often extending to a physical meeting to commit sexual abuse.
The BMR study highlights learners’ experiences of this phenomenon while connected with known or unknown people through SNS. According to Prof Deon Tustin (HoD), the online sexual grooming of children should be viewed as a distinct phenomenon impacting negatively on the day-to-day functioning of young people, families and communities. In this regard, approximately a third of learners (31.4%) encountered people who tried to get them to talk online about sex against their will. Also, almost a quarter (22.8%) was asked online to perform sexual acts. This made learners feel uncomfortable and they were unwilling to conform to the demands of the sexual perpetrators. Tustin further points out that the intensity of the sexual grooming process results in some child victims being persuaded to perform sexual acts against their will.
These views are supported by the following disturbing statistics:
% Learners persuaded to perform sexual acts
% Learners eventually performing sexual acts against their will and:
% Entered into open sex talk
% Took and sent pictures of themselves naked/semi-naked
% Sexual acts conducted on Webcam
Furthermore, the BMR study shows that only a third (31.8%) of learners who experience online sexual grooming report the incident. Learners who experience sexual grooming are prematurely sexualised (as a result of their sexual inhibitions being lowered through the grooming process) and are sexually abused, says Tustin. It is also evident that online sexual grooming of children and young people perpetuates the creation of child abuse material (child pornography), which compounds emotional and psychological consequences of sexual abuse experiences of child victims.
Exposure to online sexually explicit material
According to Ms Goodness Zulu (YRU researcher) learners who have access to the Internet, including those who do not make use of social networking sites, are potentially exposed to sexually explicit or pornographic material. This view is supported by the BMR findings showcasing that almost four in every 10 learners (41.9%) opened an unfamiliar message or Website link containing pictures of naked people or people having sex. Similarly, 43.0% of learners reported to have accidentally come across Websites with sexually explicit material. A further 39.8% reported to have encountered people on open social networking sites talking about sex when they themselves were not interested in such type of conversation.
According to Zulu, the BMR study highlights concerns regarding the 29.2% of learners who intentionally access pornographic material. The analysis also reveals that 77.6% of learners access pornographic sites occasionally, with 9.1% accessing pornographic sites daily. Furthermore, one in every five learners (22.2%) reported to have covered their tracks of accessing pornographic websites. According to Zulu, the ease of availability of online pornographic material impacts negatively on some learners’ belief systems resulting in support by learners for the non-regulation of Internet pornographic sites. This poses a serious risk of learners becoming addicted to pornography and ultimately leads to dysfunctional behaviour of such learners.
In addition to cyber grooming and exposure to pornography, the BMR study also provides relevant research on cyberstalking, cyberbullying, online love relationships and parental online monitoring. The report contains key guidelines on Internet safety for learners, schools, parents, Internet service providers and policy makers.
The full report is available from the Bureau of Market Research.
Prof DH Tustin (UNISA: BMR)
G Zulu (UNISA: BMR)