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Understanding SA internet users

- By Buhle Zuma

There is a growing number of mobile devices in South African households but not all mobile users are reaping the full benefits of their smartphones, says Mmamoloko Kubayi, member of Parliament.

Kubayi who serves as the Chairperson of the Telecommunications and Postal Services Committee, intimated that mobile network operators are not delivering infrastructure to support the advanced smart phones on the market.

An example, says Kubayi, is the West Rand in Gauteng has poor infrastructure connectivity thus limiting full utilisation of mobile phones readily sold by big mobile service providers.

Mobile phone ownership in the country is high with at least 40.9% of South African households have at least one member who either used the Internet at home or had access to it elsewhere according to Statistics South Africa.

This is viewed as a positive development as access to information and communication technology can improve the quality of lives by giving people relevant information on how to manage medical conditions, access government programmes as well as enhance the participation of marginalised voices in democracy.

“I pick up from operators in the sector, that they think availability (of mobile phones) is the same as accessibility,” noted Kubayi who was part of a panel discussing Connecting the unconnected: Access and Affordability, at Wits during the Internet Week conference.

“Availability of infrastructure (possession of smart phone) does not mean accessibility. A smart phone without  2G access is akin to a toy because you only cannot get Internet or email – but only receive calls and smses,” remarked Kubayi, calling on major network operators to ensure high speed internet access to bridge the digital divide.

Network operators such as MTN, Vodacom and Cell C are the main financial beneficiaries of phone sales and associated purchases such airtime and data for calls and the Internet.

Dr Alison Gillwald, Director of Research ICT Africa and Jeff Cole, Director of the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California joined Kubayi on the panel. Only 17.9% of rural households access the internet using mobile devices, poor broadband and prohibitive data costs contribute towards poor utilisation. A recent report by the LINK Centre at Wits commissioned by Right 2 Know, a civil society organisation, found that poor people effectively pay more for telecommunications services than the wealthy. Presentations at the conference corroborated these findings.

Fears of the Internet as Expressed by Children  

Two discussions focused on children during the Internet Week.

Ellen Helsper, from the London School of Economics, presented on Children online: opportunities and benefits, risk and harm drawing on research which they have conducted as part of the programme European Union Kids Online.

Although the internet provides children with opportunities, most parents fear that their children will be exposed to inappropriate content, particularly sexual images. Parental fears, however, should not create digitally illiterate children, says Helsper.

Safety on the internet can be achieved through active parental participation.

Research conducted by the programme found that pornography tops children’s online concerns.

“Violent, aggressive, cruel or gory content came a close second - although violence receives less public attention than sexual material

“What particularly upsets them (children) is real violence rather than fictional violence. Violence against the vulnerable such as children or animals,” says Helsper.

Research findings also recorded concern difference by age.

“Children’s concern about online risks rises markedly from nine to 12 years. Younger children are more concerned about content risks, and as they get older they become more concerned about conduct and contact risks.”

Helsper advised parents to be aware that the offline world is not separate from online. A child who is bullied offline is likely to be bullied online, she says.

 “Citizens need to learn how to navigate digital streets.

The Wits Internet Week took place from 7 – 10 July 2015, and was joined organised by the Network Society Project at Wits Journalism, the Link Centre and the Johannesburg Centre for Software. The programme featured research from Latin America, the US, Russia, Europe and Latin America.

Internet Week coincided with the 2015 annual meeting of the World Internet Project (WIP), hosted by Wits for the first time this year. WIP is one of the oldest and most respected networks of Internet researchers in the world with members in more than thirty countries.