Unlike most children of his age, Alex Bahati, 16, is privileged to have a smart phone at his disposal when he is at home during school holidays. Alex lives with his two young siblings and a house help. His parents work with an international NGO and their work demands a lot of travel and this keeps them away from the family most of the time. The flat where Alex lives is fixed with free Wifi giving the residents access to the Internet without much restriction. At Domus Marie Secondary School where he is in Form one, the deputy principle Mr. Thomson reported that Alex is one among a couple of students who are withdrawn and sleepy in class most of the times. His parents have also pleaded with the school administration to give Alex some special attention because he is addicted to the Internet.
As founder of MediaNetWorks, an advocacy and capacity building organization, I have been holding presentations and seminars about Internet safety in local schools, churches, and events organized for children. Some events of seven years ago remain vividly clear. While giving a workshop on Internet Safety to teens at a local Church in Ngong (Nairobi), two boys approached me seeking help on how to deal with Internet pornography addiction. During the event, the majority of children innocently confessed they chat online with people they do not know and would be happy to meet them face to face. “They are just social media friends, we discuss anything with them because they are available even though we have not met,” some of them confessed to me, not knowing what dangers they exposed themselves to with the so-called online friends.
Tony Chege is 18 now. He was rescued from the street when he was 13. He now lives at Kivuli Centre, a street children rehabilitation centre run by Koinonia Community where he is a support staff during his school holidays. Alex is an avid user of the Internet, albeit wisely. He confessed that he learnt how to use the Internet while in the streets. He spent most his time in cybercafés playing computer games, betting games, downloading movies, music, or in chat rooms to while his time away before retiring to a video show room that doubled as a lodging place for the homeless. He would pay less than a dollar, spend his night watching adult movies, but also find a place to lay his head on.
In Kenya, the proliferation and accessibility of the Internet in Kenya is a major milestone in the communication arena. While the Internet and social media networks are a useful resource for the development of children, it has also exposed them to various forms of abuse including social media addiction, human trafficking, abductions, recruitment to criminal gangs, radicalization, pornography, and cyberbullying among others. Through social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, many children are posting personal information like e-mail addresses, mobile numbers, and home and school addresses online, making it easier for sex predators and traffickers to trace them.
Unfortunately, although the young Kenyan may be more digitally savvy than their parents or teachers, their lack of maturity and life experience can quickly get them into trouble. Another disturbing revelation is that, although most parents, teachers, and guardians are aware their kids are online, they do not check what their children are doing online and who they are communicating with. The problem is more chronic in the informal settlements in major towns in Kenya. You will find unaccompanied children as young as five and six in cybercafés whiling away time playing computer games, watching video, and communicating online with people they have hardly met. In slum areas cybercafés, children are downloading adult content under your nose.
To address this emerging problem in Kenya, MediaNet Works, in partnership with Koinonia Community (a child protection nonprofit organization) and in collaboration with the Internet Society Kenya Chapter, is working to implement an Internet safety project for children entitled “Safe Online, Safe Onland”. The project it is supported by the Internet Society Beyond the Net Funding Programme and it will benefit over 700 former street children living and schooling in Koinonia Community’s rehabilitation children centers.
The project will provide an opportunity for children to learn new life skills on how to use the Internet effectively for their personal, intellectual, and spiritual development. Children rescued from difficult circumstances will benefit from the project’s activities and information on how to use the Internet responsibly and positively.
Ten local journalists, 10 teachers, 5 social workers and 10 children will be trained on how to deliver Internet safety programs and help establish Internet safety clubs in schools. To ensure this initiative leaves an indelible mark in the society, the project will build the capacity of the local community to ensuring local ownership, sustainability, and continuity of this initiative beyond the project period.
Photo: the project team’s Anthony Otieno, Joel Okomoli, Athena Morgan, Clement Njoroge, and Gerald Mutua