Lesotho’s children and the digital environment

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Lesotho’s children and the digital environment
Lesotho’s children and the digital environment

Africa-Press – Lesotho. THE Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted lives beyond imagination. Yet in disrupting lives it has also seen societies being forcibly thrust into a digital world they had never inhabited before.

The education sector in Lesotho is one of those that quickly looked to the internet for apps and content so that teaching and learning could continue in the face of school closures.

One can assume that a fair number of young people in Lesotho are online, even though the country has a low level of digital skills by international standards.

For example, Lesotho is ranked 123 out of 130 economies on Portulans Institute’ Network Readiness Index 2021 which is one of the leading indices that measure the application and in respect of information and communications technology globally.

Crucially, Lesotho is ranked 135 out of 193 countries on the E-Government Development Index 2020 and 146 out of 193 on the E-Participation Index. As schools resume, we need to reflect on the digital environment that Basotho children inhabit or one they should inhabit.

It was not possible to find data about Lesotho’s children and the digital environments they inhabit. However, according to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), by May 2021 (about a year after the implementation of lockdowns to contain the Covid-19 pandemic) a third of internet users were people aged 18 and below.

This can be explained by the fact that in response to Covid-19 containment measures, for some children, education moved to digital platforms. For others, education paused because digital interventions were not feasible.

Several young people in Lesotho are among those whose education had to pause and there were several reports that others dropped out of school altogether.

Children in public schools missed out on a lot of learning hours due to the pandemic because most schools were simply unequipped to move to a digital environment.

Most teachers did not have the skills to teach in a digital environment. Besides the lack of digital readiness in schools, several homes lack the basic infrastructure for digital learning.

In 2019, around 50% of the population did not have access to electricity. A smartphone, a computer, or a tablet requires easy access to electricity to be used meaningfully.

Besides electricity, the affordability of devices and data remains a huge challenge. Very few households have always-on internet access for children to use. Most households rely on data bundles, which they hardly afford. As a result, many children do not get digital skills crucial for the future of work.

In the face of the pandemic, one would have expected that the Ministry of Education would have picked some lessons from the peak of the lockdowns to put in place a policy to digitally transform the education sector in Lesotho.

However, that does not seem to be the case. After all, the government is hardly digitalised itself. For example, this being the start of the year, I visited the Ministry of Education’s website (https://education.

org. ls/) hoping to find important dates in the 2022 academic year; I found nothing. The website looks like it has been in a time warp since 2018. Unconvinced that I could not find information online, I also looked for any strategies the government of Lesotho might implement to deal with digitalisation in of the education sector.

I found nothing. The policies might exist, but they were not immediately available on the ministry’s website or government portal or elsewhere online.

Even though the government does not seem to have a digital plan for schools, the reality is that young people are online where they are involved in various pursuits, from learning to entrepreneurship, socialising and entertainment.

While the digital environment holds great promise for children, there are dangers that children are exposed to in digital spaces. The dangers vary by age and types of activity they engage in, particularly in social media and mobile gaming.

Social media and mobile gaming platforms enable users to contact anyone globally, which comes with a host of hazards. Predators can target children for sexual grooming and exploitation on these platforms.

Children can be lured and trafficked by organised criminals operating on the internet. Children can become victims of cyberbullying and online gender-based violence.

Children can also post compromising videos and pictures of themselves and other children online, the consequences of which can be grave for both victims and perpetrators.

Social media platforms such as TikTok are popular with kids, but how much do parents know what type of content their children are able to view on the platform or what they post? Even other platforms that are branded as for children are not necessarily safe for them.

While it is worrisome that perpetrators can cause harm to children online, parents also need to be mindful that their child can attract a criminal record by the things they do online.

Children as young as 15 have been prosecuted for digital crimes. Some crimes may attract fines while others may result in imprisonment. Common cybercrimes that children commit include the creation and distribution of disinformation and child-pornography, hacking and cyberbullying.

While cybercrime law is still underdeveloped in Lesotho, the situation is set to change with the envisaged Capture Crime and Cyber Crime Bill. Children may find themselves being prosecuted for crimes they commit, knowingly or out of naivety. Raising children is generally challenging and the digital frontier makes it more complex.

To what extent are parents equipped with the knowledge and skills to parent their children in the digital space? The responsibility of the parent begins as the parent decides that the time is right for the child to engage in the digital environment.

By the time the parent buys a device such as a smartphone, tablet or laptop computer, which by all means parents should do, the parent should be clear about how the child will be protected from digital harms.

Naturally, children’s devices will be connected to the internet. A parent should consider several strategies to keep a child safe. Strategies include device settings, technical tools (such as filtering programmes) and child protection apps.

It is the responsibility of the parent to monitor apps that will be installed on the child’s device, the type of content that the device can access, the amount of screen time that the child can have, etc. Besides technical controls, there are a few other things that a parent can do to mitigate the risks for a child.

The first is to have a dialogue with them about safe online usage immediately when a child is introduced to the digital space and to build upon that dialogue with time; when children can identify online risks, they are more likely to raise concerns to parents or teachers.

The second is for parents to regularly engage in the activities that their children engage in online – for example, parents should play video games with their children; get on TikTok with them.

Lastly, they must monitor the children’s usage of the devices. However, there is a challenge: some parents, in particular grannies taking care of young vulnerable children may not have the wherewithall to play the digital parenting role.

Who takes care of the digital welfare of such children? For its part, the government should ensure that children get the best education, including digital skills. It should ensure that there are policy and regulatory frameworks for protecting children from harms in the digital environment.

The ITU, among other things, recommends that a country should develop and implement a national child online protection strategy to guide its response to the harms young people face online.

The government needs to develop laws that make it clear what behaviours are legal and which ones are not so that there is equal legal certainty for harms committed against children online and offline.

There should be a way for parents and children to report incidents of concern safely and quickly. Civil society has a crucial role of empowering children and parents to gain the benefit of digitilisation and at the same time remain safe online.

As society we need to help each other in this new frontier. l Nthabiseng Pule is the founder of the Internet Freedom Project Lesotho and Internet Society LS Chapter Member. She writes in her personal capacity.

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